Conjunctions at the start of sentences – to begin or not to begin?
Updated: Nov 22
Jane Austen did it. Shakespeare did it. Even the Bible gets away with it. So, why do conjunctions at the beginning of sentences still trouble so many grammar pedants?
The other day someone left a comment on a document we had sent for review. It read: 'Bad English'. Our hearts sank and the panic set in. Then we saw what they’d highlighted – a sentence starting with 'and'. We sighed with relief.
It’s not the first time this has caused upset. And it certainly won’t be the last. (See what we did there?) We often find ourselves explaining why it can actually be a good thing to do, so this blog post is our two cents on the topic.
How many times did your teachers tell you to never start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’? We all heard this countless times growing up, and it's a hard habit to break. But break it we should! (That felt good).
No longer a grammatical faux pas – it’s an extremely handy technique for making writing flow. You might find it annoying or think it’s improper. However, you need to stop obsessively deleting it from documents and acting like it’s the ultimate writing sin.
Google: Can You Start a Sentence with a Conjunction?
The first result to pop up is from Grammarly, our beloved grammar companion who we couldn’t be without for picking up those pesky mistakes.
And we couldn’t sum it up better ourselves, thanks, Grammarly:
‘There is nothing wrong with starting sentences with “and,” “but,” or other similar conjunctions. You may, however, encounter people who mistakenly believe that starting a sentence with a conjunction is an error, so consider your audience when deciding to structure your sentences this way.’
Continuing on, Fowler’s ‘A Dictionary of Modern English Usage’ from 1926 states:
‘There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with “and”, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards… The widespread public belief that “but” should not be used at the beginning of a sentence seems to be unshakeable. Yet it has no foundation.’
Sir Ernest Gowers is the definitive post-war voice on English grammar who wanted to eradicate 'officialese'. In his 1954 book, The Complete Plain Words, he says:
‘There used to be an idea that it was inelegant to begin a sentence with and. That idea is now as good as dead. And to use and in this position may be a useful way of indicating that what you are about to say will reinforce what you have just said.’
And to look at a more recent addition to the argument, Oxford Dictionaries says:
‘The argument against using “and” or “but” to introduce a sentence is that such a sentence expresses an incomplete thought (or fragment) and is therefore incorrect. However, this is a stylistic preference rather than a grammatical rule.’
Top 3 reasons why you might start with a conjunction
Still need more convincing? Here are just a few ways starting with a conjunction can help engage your reader:
1. It’s conversational
Ever noticed that most of us start sentences with conjunctions while talking? You start to sound unnatural and stilted when you don’t.
Most people prefer a conversational tone when they’re reading content too. Because, like talking, conversational content is easier to digest.
We live in a world where so many things are hard to read. We’re looking at you – legal contracts, terms and conditions, and business reports. So, to grab somebody’s attention, and hold it, you need to write in a way that’s easy for them to read.
It keeps the flow going and keeps your reader engaged.
Take Oatly’s copy, for example, with a conjunction used right at the end – ‘And here it is.’
You can hear someone saying this out loud, which adds more personality behind it.
Or Duke Cannon’s soap product – ‘And quite frankly, he prefers it that way.’
Using a conjunction to make a point to you, the reader. It certainly makes you listen.
2. Adds drama
Read this from the Bible:
'And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:13
Packs quite a punch, right?
Imagine if it was simply:
'There are three remaining which are faith, hope and love. The greatest of these is love.'
It doesn’t have quite the same impact.
Of course, authors throughout the centuries haven’t shied away from conjunctions to build excitement.
'Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor.' ― Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
'And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.' – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
It can also emphasize the unexpected. This can be particularly effective in storytelling where the writer wants to highlight a twist or surprise. Such as: 'Many people fear crashing in an airplane. But riding in a car is actually more dangerous.'
3. Breaks up long sentences
‘And then I saw her face, now I'm a believer. And not a trace, of doubt in my mind.’
Bet we got you singing along there. The well-known song by Smash Mouth.
Now imagine the lyrics without breaking up the sentence using a conjunction.
'I saw her face, so now I’m a believer without a trace of doubt in my mind.'
Bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?
It’s lost its flow. And you definitely have to concentrate more to take in the sentence, meaning some readers (or listeners) may miss parts.
Or how about the wording of the US Constitution?
‘Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.’
Imagine if that was one sentence – what a mouthful!
A word of warning
We admit we like to sprinkle our copy with conjunctions at the start of sentences where appropriate. But it is possible to overdo it.
While it’s not grammatically incorrect, overuse can lead to a choppy and disjointed writing style – disrupting the flow of your writing. It can also be very repetitive. There’s a reason we discourage children from doing it – it can make the tone monotonous. 'And then I went to the shops. And then I rode my bike home. And then I had dinner. And then I went to bed...'
It’s generally a good idea to vary your sentence structure to keep your writing interesting and engaging. And we hope we’ve shown you that, in some cases, starting a sentence with a conjunction can be effective for emphasis or dramatic effect.
As with many aspects of writing, balance and moderation are key.