Starting Sentences with "And," "But," or "Or"

Nothing wrong with it.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

I'm writing some material about transitions for the Intensive Editing Workshop I'm teaching at UCLA in January, and it reminded me about the mythical "rule" saying that you can't start sentences with conjunctions, such as "and," "but," and "or."

As Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes, starting a sentence this way doesn't violate any established usage or grammar practices. Nor will it make your writing seem unidiomatic and jarring, at least if you're writing for lawyers: Back when Lexis let you search for capitalized words, I ran a Lexis search for caps(but) in the Supreme Court database, and found over 900 results from 2000 to 2011. A similar search in the New York Times database found over 1100 results in just one week. Nor is this just some newfangled kids-these-days degradation; the Constitution contains sentences that begin with "and" and "but," as do the works of Dickens and many others.

Moreover, starting a sentence this way is useful: An initial "and," "but," or "or" is a good transition that shows the relationship of this sentence to the previous one, with as little formality and complexity as possible. The usual alternatives, such as "however" or "moreover" strike me as stuffier, though sometimes "moreover" adds an emphasis that "and" doesn't.

When I last blogged about this, a commenter objected on the grounds that "they're called conjunctions for a reason"—presumably meaning that conjunctions must conjoin two parts of a sentence. But like many appeals to supposed logic when it comes to language, this appeal assumes the conclusion. The term "conjunction" does suggest that a word is connecting two things, but it doesn't tell us that those two things must be parts of the same sentence. Why can't a conjunction serve as a transition that logically connects two consecutive sentences?

Now if you just find these locutions aesthetically displeasing, and want to avoid them in your own writing, there's not much I can say about that. But I see no basis for faulting others' use of them, or for editors' trying to categorically edit them out.

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  1. But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.
    ?William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 1959

    1. I am inspired not only to re-read Strunk & White’s Elements but also Politics and the English Language
      by George Orwell.

      1. Not Strunk & White. It is one of the worst guides on writing there is.

        http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/LandOfTheFree.pdf

        1. And (see what I did there?) so is that piece by George Orwell. Utter garbage.

    2. Using their own good rule of striking useless words:

      Since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. Although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.

      The post is correct that it is ok to start sentences with conjunctions. But it is one of those practices that a writer should always think twice about, like writing a sentence without a verb. Probably students in high school should be told not to do it they’ve reached drinking age.

  2. Who’s your audience? As an op-ed writer for a few decades, I came to really like the readability of … google for “conversational English”. After a while, you “verbalize” more in your head. Would you start a sentence with one of those words … verbally? Do you ever drop a paragraph for effect?

    Like this?

    It’s another way of IMPACTING your reader. Drama, persuasion, etc.
    Through the years, I saw editors more tolerant of conversational English — starting in the very early 8os. But their readership was 9th grade reading level! Thus, who’s your audience.,

    You’re already a very clear and concise writer, even on topics that are a bit “exotic” (I read you at WaPo).

    1. I appreciate the need to think about who your audience is. But my point in my post is that conjunctions at the start of sentences are acceptable even to sophisticated, professional audiences — if Supreme Court Justices do it, it’s hard to see many audiences that would object.

      1. I agree with the point of the post, but holding out Supreme Court Justices as the best examples of writing for sophisticated, professional audiences demonstrates a bit too much guild loyalty.

        1. Well, they general write for professionals; and lawyers are pretty sophisticated consumers of writing, and known for a decent amount of formality to boot. This isn’t to say that lawyers are generally great writers (few professions generally are); but if this is seen as acceptable in prestigious writing aimed at lawyers, I’d think it would be seen as acceptable to audiences generally, including ones who expect some degree of formality.

      2. And my point in my comment earlier is that conjunctions at the start of sentences are acceptable even for sophisticated, professional writers — if Supreme Court Justices do it, it’s hard to see many audiences that would object.

  3. I entirely agree with Prof. V’s essay.

    And sometimes I not only start a sentence with a conjunction, I’ll start a new paragraph with one, as here ? in which I’m conjoining not two phrases, or just two sentences, but two paragraphs. In a longer document, the conjunction helps set off those paragraphs a little bit, as if they were nested parentheticals in a longer equasion.

    Or so I fancy.

  4. A few years after I’d started working at Harvard Business School I started working for a prof, who I often copy-edited for, who liked to use “And” or “But” at the beginning of sentences. It confused the heck out of me for a while but I learned to appreciate his writing over time. Also, after some delay, I also noticed that leading conjunctions were not uncommon in business writing. (Anecdotal only.) Interesting to learn that it may be common in another field.

  5. You learn rigid rules of grammar first, and then you learn when to break them.

    Imagine if we were first taught passive voice was always wrong…

  6. Well! Between this and the Oxford comma, the world is upside down:

    “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

    And my Seventh grade teacher is whirring in his grave.

  7. There is nothing wrong with using conjunctions to start sentences as long as it’s a logical context and adds to the sentence’s clarity. The grammar “experts” annoy me with their set in stone rules. They behave as if language and syntax don’t evolve over time. One need only long at the differences of olde and modern English, or even the use of English, Spanish, and Portuguese today across the world. T

    1. I should note that, as best I can tell, actual grammar experts don’t claim that there is any such prohibition (or that there was one in the past).

  8. Correct and thanks for this post.

    Law Review editors often abide by “rules” that are actually superstitions. Other bugbears are split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions.

    A classic work on this type of thinking is “Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins”, Bernstein, 1971.

    1. If you wish to disparage superstitions, you are at the wrong blog.

  9. But… but… but…

  10. I think you’re missing the point: when you start a sentence with “but,” “and,” or “or,” you’re actually expressing a slightly different meaning than when you use these conjunctions after a comma. If I say, “This precedent is binding, but it needs to be reversed,” I’m not saying the same thing as if I say, “This precedent is binding. But it needs to be reversed.”

    Notice I wrote, “say,” not, “write.” There’s a reason: punctuation is meant to mirror speech. If spoken aloud, the latter expression demands a greater pause between the two clauses; therefore, the latter expression places greater emphasis on the “but” or the contrast between the thoughts.

    The former elides the concepts, aka minimizes the contrast.

    If my Brief were all about overturning the precedent, I’d use the latter expression. Thus, I would say, “The precedent is binding. Then, I’d begin a new paragraph with, “But it needs to be reversed,” which serves as an introduction to my arguments for reversal.

    In contrast, if the issue were minor, I’d use “but” as a conjunction to minimize the issue. So, I might say, “The precedent is binding, but it needs to be reversed. Regardless, the plaintiff prevails because…”

    Sorry for the lengthy post, but it’s a rather subtle issue.

    1. I agree that sentence breaks can subtly change the emphasis in a sentence, and can sometimes change things even more sharply. When two clauses are linked by a conjunction in one sentence, the result may be different than when two sentences are linked by a conjunction.

      But I don’t think anything in my post says otherwise; my point here is simply that it’s fine to start a sentence with a conjunction — though of course you need to make sure that the resulting sentence actually means what you want it to mean.

  11. But at what point do enough people think it’s wrong that including it in your writing will cause a negative reaction in your reader?

    1. I think that’s a reasonable concern — which is why I think there’s safety in Supreme Court opinions. If the most authoritative legal institution in the country uses it, I doubt that many lower court judges or lawyers (or law professors) would be annoyed by it.

  12. And I agree.

    But what bothers me is the 21st C. phenomenon (I first noticed it about the turn of the century on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC radio program, and it’s spread since then) of starting the equivalent of a paragraph in conversation with a totally meaningless “So….” It’s usually in response to a question. Nothing wrong with starting a sentence with “so” in the sense of “therefore” or to indicate expectancy (“So, Mr. Bond, what do you think now that I have you in my clutches?”) or to introduce a dependent clause (“So we can have hot water, we’ll fix the water heater.”) or as a qualifier (“So far, so good.” “So as to put Mr. Bond in hot water,…”), but what are these people thinking with these senseless “so”s? I think they’re not satisfied people pay attention to their utterings from the first word, so they sacrifice one, as if saying, “I’m talking now, in case you didn’t notice.”

    1. Perhaps they are attempting to sew curiosity and interest

    2. For a pretty detailed discussion of the initial “so,” see this Language Log post: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2570 .

      1. Thanks. I don’t think the recency of a phenomenon is an illusion when it occurs sporadically for centuries, then busts out as a fad.

        I’m always curious about how these things start and spread, like a couple of them related to children. One is that, just in about the past decade, a catchphrase of praise parents give children has caught on: “Good job.” Not that the phrase didn’t exist before, but it’s become particularly popular in that context, to the point it seems it’s now the thing to say. In answer to my wonder about this, someone speculated that Dr. Phil or some other media figure might’ve popularized it.

        The other is the custom of smashing a child’s hand into hir 1st birthday cake, plus newlyweds pushing wedding cake onto each other’s faces. People cite some ancient Roman custom involving breaking bread at weddings, but that doesn’t explain why this has become a fad over the past 25 yrs. or so. Photographers even do cake smash shoots with baby or (less often) wedding subjects. Maybe that’s “as seen on television” too.

      2. I’ll add that the phenomenon I’m referencing is exactly the one Noni Mausa described in the 1st comment on that article. It’s uncanny how people started doing this, seemingly all at once, in answering Qs in radio interviews, & now answering Qs verbally in other settings. Interesting too that, as also pointed out as an occupat’l tendency in the comments, the most religious user I know of that verbal tic is an academic (former dept. head, now dean) at an institution where I teach, when answering me about how to do certain things.

        The other types of sentence-starting & para.-starting “So”s I’ve heard forever. This one’s new.

      3. Maybe they think they have too much breath, so to avoid making the 1st meaningful word they utter too loud, they have to let out a little pressure via “So,”.

  13. While it may be permissible, I find it generally to be poor writing.

  14. Qaere: is there any situation exxcept a purposely formal resolution where it’;s good to use “Whereas” to start a sentence?

    1. I think so, by the same reasoning that says you can break a sentence with a full stop and then continue with one of these words, instead of breaking with a comma:

      “Donna likes green. Whereas you prefer red.” If for some reason you wanted a dramatic pause there. You might even do it in dialog: “`Donna likes green.’ `Whereas you prefer red!'”

  15. In a place where I worked 30+ years ago, a resident genius, whom I’ll call “Gregory”, was well-known and frequently mocked for his living-in-the-clouds demeanor. Once he was called into a conference to settle a point about one of his inventions. His manager asked “Gregory” a question and “Gregory’s” response started with the word, “However.”

    The manager was livid … “No speech can begin with the word, “However.” … For months the phrase was used to mock “Gregory” and the manager.

    Happy New Year
    Bill Drissel
    Frisco, TX

  16. The word “pendantic” comes to mind reading many of these comments. I too am a freak on English usage but I have come around in my years (now 70 1/2) to preferring certain style points so long as it doesn’t bend the rules too much. That’s the point isn’t it, there are rules and there is style. And depending on who you are you do bloody well what you please so long as you get the point across. And since style also lies in the eyes of the beholder it matters who is speaking / writing and to whom. Formal use of a semi-colon might seem to stiff and formal in one context and the extra pause the period between two sentences allows for a buildup to a crescendo in the second. Since this is all relative and context dependent I’ll do whatever i bloody well think works best to make the point in the best and/or strongest way I want to. As S&W would say grammar rules and style have to both make sense and work together so long as they are not so badly turned to misuse.

  17. Best book on writing I have ever encountered (during 30+ years of writing for a living): “The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader’s Perspective,” by George Gopen.

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