It’s not easy to learn how to write well. But often it’s what novice writers think they know about writing that stunts their development.
Consider the widespread belief that it’s always wrong to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions or begin sentences with And or But. Not one of these grammar “rules” has historical or grammatical support, yet many writers cling to and defend them as God-given truths.
Let’s dismantle one of these grammar myths here — the shibboleth that you can’t begin a sentence with the coordinating conjunctions And or But.
No matter what your third-grade English teacher told you, for hundreds of years excellent writers have used them to great effect. And there’s no reason why you can’t too.
Beginning sentences with And or But isn’t new
According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the conjunction and first appeared in Old English around A.D. 700, and but was first documented as a conjunction around 1390. In The Canterbury Tales (ca. 1393–1400), for example, Chaucer began many of his sentences with And and But. Bryan Garner also points out in Garner on Language and Writing that Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) began more than 20% of his sentences with conjunctions, and William Shakespeare, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Mark Twain, among others, also found nothing wrong with it.
Your elementary-school teachers got it wrong
If Garner’s Modern American Usage is correct that the rule against beginning sentences with And or But “is rank superstition,” how did it become so widespread? Writing authorities aren’t quite sure. According to Garner, some writing authorities believe that grade-school grammar teachers grew tired of pupils beginning all of their sentences with And or But so the teachers invented the rule to discourage it.
In Writing with Style, John Trimble suggests that teachers perpetuated the rule because they (a) learned the rule as students and never questioned its correctness; (b) wanted to stamp out informality in their pupils’ writing; and (c) were focused on teaching compound sentences where conjunctions join two independent clauses.
Regardless of the rule’s origin, however, modern grammar and usage authorities universally condemn it. Besides Garner and Trimble above, Eric Partridge (Usage and Abusage), Sir Ernest Gowers (The Complete Plain Words), H.W Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Ernest Gowers ed. 1965)), Theodore M. Bernstein (The Careful Writer), William Zinsser (On Writing Well), and The Chicago Manual of Style all have rejected the rule as illegitimate.
In We Who Speak English: And Our Ignorance of Our Mother Tongue, Charles Allen Lloyd called it a monstrosity: “[A]pparently about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating [the rule]. One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves.”
However and its ilk are flawed replacements
Many writers prefer to use However, to begin adversative sentences. Beginning a sentence with But, they say, is too jarring. True, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with beginning a sentence with However followed by a comma. But However, as a sentence-starter is a cumbersome way to begin a contrasting sentence.
Trimble says to avoid using However, because But “has two fewer syllables and takes no comma, so it’s a cleaner, punchier transition word — especially at the head of a paragraph, where it’s peerless.” Writers who prefer the softer however, however, commonly set it off with commas mid-sentence at the point of emphasis.
Careful readers notice that polished writers rarely begin their sentences with However followed by a comma. Consider the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Missouri v. McNeely (Apr. 17, 2013). The Court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts’s partial concurrence/dissent, and Justice Thomas’s dissent used But to begin 20 sentences; whereas, only two sentences began with However followed by a comma. That’s a 10–1 ratio in favor of But.
There are, of course, other words that can introduce a contrast, including On the other hand, Notwithstanding, Nonetheless, or Nevertheless. And In addition to, Furthermore, and Moreover are grammatically sound substitutes for And. But these clunky substitutes force readers to parse more than one syllable, and the subsequent comma stops the sentence at the first word. So while the grammar police won’t rap your knuckles if you use these words, they’re not good style because they interrupt the euphony and rhythm of the sentence.
Knowing is admitting that you don’t know
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates says that “I am better off than he is — for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.” Lawyers — as professional writers — should apply the same self-criticism to what they think they already know about writing.
If you can’t remember when or how you learned a grammar rule, take a few minutes to verify whether it is, in fact, a legitimate rule. Besides the authorities above, there are many other excellent writing guides that answer thorny grammar questions.
If you claim to be too busy to do this homework, remember this — the only thing that’s worse than not knowing how to do something is to do something wrong while believing that it’s right.
This column is adapted from an article originally published in the Minnesota Lawyer on May 6, 2013.