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03/26/01: Starting Sentences with "And" or "But"

A tip subscriber wrote to ask if she could ever start a sentence with the word "but." The answer to her question is yes.

The word "but" is one of the seven coordinating conjunctions:

and
but
or
nor
for
so
yet

Coordinating conjunctions are used to join words, phrases, and clauses that are balanced as logical equals:

Mary AND I went to the meeting. [joins two subjects]

We were tired YET exhilarated by the end of our first day hiking up Mt. Everest. [joins two adjectives]

We swam all morning BUT fished in the afternoon. [joins two verbs]

Often these conjunctions are used to coordinate two independent clauses (groups of words that can stand alone as sentences). Here are two examples, with the independent clauses in brackets:

[We started to go home], but [we had run out of gas].

[She was a good leader], for [she could delegate well].

Most likely, many people believe they should not start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction because their grammar teachers in grade school discouraged them from doing so. Yet such a rule is completely unjustifiable. When grammar teachers teach youngsters the essentials of sentence structure, they most likely explain that coordinating conjunctions are used to hold together elements within a sentence. Therefore, they may discourage students from starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions because they are trying not only to explain conjunctions but also to help their students learn to avoid sentence fragments like this one:

She was a nice girl. And smart, too.

In this example, using "and" after the period is wrong because the second "sentence" is not really a sentence at all: it has neither a subject nor a verb.

Thus, youngsters carry forward into adulthood the notion that a sentence should never begin with a coordinating conjunction, especially not with "and" or "but." In fact, however, professional writers have started sentences with coordinating conjunctions throughout history.

Starting virtually every sentence with a conjunction would, of course, make your writing thoroughly monotonous. And one would probably not want to use such a construction in very formal contexts. For every coordinating conjunction, there is a conjunctive adverb (however, nevertheless, moreover, furthermore, etc.) that holds the same meaning but represents a somewhat higher level of diction.

Compare these two constructions:

She wanted to leave the office, drive home, and spend the evening alone in front of a fire. But she knew that duty called her to finish the project and to put her best effort into making it superb.

She wanted to leave the office, drive home, and spend the evening alone in front of a fire. However, she knew that duty called her to finish the project and to put her best effort into making it superb.

We sound more formal (sometimes, almost stuffy) when we use "however" instead of "but." Yet certain situations do call for the less casual tone, and business writing is often one of them.

When you are writing in informal contexts and decide to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, always be sure that what follows it is an independent clause, capable of standing alone as a sentence.

ANSWERS TO LAST WEEK'S TEST ON "DRUG" AND "DRAGGED" OR "LEND" AND "LOAN"

The Questions:

1. My teenage children frequently ask me to loan them money for new clothes.

2. The doctor planned to drug the patient before starting the procedure.

3. After working late for three nights in a row, Jane drug herself into the office to make her presentation on Friday morning.

4. The rug did not look good in the dining room, so we drug it into the living room.

5. I knew that we had bills to pay, but I dragged my feet when it came time to ask my parents to lend us money.

The Answers:

1. to LEND them money

2. CORRECT

3. Jane DRAGGED herself

4. we DRAGGED it into the living room

5. CORRECT use of "dragged" and "lend"


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