Many people have been taught that it's wrong to start a sentence with a conjunction, but nearly all major style guides say doing so is fine. Neal Whitman investigates why there seems to be such a difference between what teachers say and what style guides say.
Today’s topic is whether it’s OK to begin a sentence with and, but, or or. The short answer is yes, and just about all modern grammar books and style guides agree! So who is it that keeps saying it’s wrong to do it?
It’s Fine to Start a Sentence with a Coordinating Conjunction
And, but, and or are the three most common members of a group of words known as coordinating conjunctions. The question about whether it’s grammatical to begin a sentence with and, but, or or is actually the question of whether it’s grammatical to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. Here’s what some of the big usage guides say on the matter. The one that seems to get quoted the most is the Chicago Manual of Style, which says:
There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.
Both Garner’s Modern American Usage, and Fowler’s Modern English Usage call this belief a superstition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (or MWDEU) says, “Everybody agrees that it’s all right to begin a sentence with and,” and notes that you can find examples of it all the way back to Old English.
Many People Have Been Taught That It’s Wrong
However, MWDEU also observes that “nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some past time that the practice was wrong.” So where did this idea come from? In The Story of English in 100 Words, David Crystal writes:
During the 19th century, some schoolteachers took against the practice of beginning a sentence with a word like but or and, presumably because they noticed the way young children overused them in their writing.
But instead of gently weaning the children away from overuse, they banned the usage altogether! Generations of children were taught they should ‘never’ begin a sentence with a conjunction. Some still are. (Entry for and)
If you’ve ever been angry at a teacher who kept your whole class in from recess because two or three of your classmates were misbehaving, you should have a big problem with this rationale for not beginning a sentence with a conjunction. They think you can’t handle the freedom of using conjunctions!