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.
Coordinating Conjunctions Versus Subordinating Conjunctions
So how can you make sure you’re using a coordinating conjunction and not a subordinating conjunction? The easiest way is just to memorize the coordinating conjunctions. Of course you know about and, but, and or, because they’re the most common and the most versatile. In addition to joining clauses, they can join almost any other kind of word or phrase. Another coordinating conjunction that can join many kinds of words and phrases is yet. In addition to these four, there are a few less-versatile conjunctions that can only join clauses: for, nor, and so. (Actually, if you speak British English, you might also use so to join verbs and verb phrases, but in American English, it sounds funny when you do that.) Many grammar sources, including my book Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, keep track of the coordinating conjunctions by using the mnemonic word fanboys, which stands for for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. If you listened to episode 366, you may remember that the word slash has been evolving into a coordinating conjunction, too, but that’s still far from entering the list of coordinating conjunctions in Standard English.
Subordinating conjunctions include words such as if, because, although, when, and many others. Unlike coordinating conjunctions, which can make a complete sentence by combining with two clauses or just one clause, subordinating conjunctions definitely need two. For example, because I wasn’t happy is a fragment, because it has combined with only one clause: I wasn’t happy. On the other hand, I switched jobs because I wasn’t happy is a complete sentence, with because joining two clauses: I switched jobs and I wasn’t happy.
One quick and dirty tip for distinguishing subordinating conjunctions from coordinating conjunctions is this: a coordinating conjunction has to come between the clauses it connects, but a subordinating conjunction can come before both of them. For example, you can say, “Because I wasn’t happy, I switched jobs,” with because coming before the first of the two clauses. That means because is a subordinating conjunction. On the other hand, it’s nonsense to say, “But Squiggly forgot to include his application fee. He turned in his application on time.” The but has to come in between the clauses, which tells us that it’s a coordinating conjunction.
So as long as you know how to avoid accidental sentence fragments, feel free to begin sentences with a coordinating conjunction. But don’t overdo it. Or it might be disconcerting to your audience. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?
This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics, blogs at LiteralMinded.wordpress.com, and is a regular contributor to the online resource Visual Thesaurus.