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I find myself editing a good number of people's questions on Stack Exchange sites in order to correct grammatical errors.

A large number of these edits include fixing what appears to be the common mistake of beginning a sentence with "But". A hypothetical example would be

I have set my router up to use DHCP. But it does not seem to be working correctly and it is causing me some problems accessing the internet.

or

My computer was working fine for three years. But the other day it died.

As a (British) English teacher, seeing a "but" with a capital "B" is one of my pet hates. I am not sure why though. I think that when I was at school one of my English teachers must have emphasised that this was wrong (along with starting a sentence with "due to..." - but that is another story.)

The two examples above would, obviously be correctly written as

I have set my router up to use DHCP, but it does not seem to be working correctly and it is causing me some problems accessing the internet.

and

My computer was working fine for three years, but the other day it died.

I see this mistake made a lot by non-native English speakers, although, worryingly, many native speakers do the same. Why is that? Is it an issue arising from direct translation from the mother tongue. I wonder whether it is grammatically correct in other languages to begin a sentence with the equivalent of "but", i.e. "mais", "pero", "aber" etc. I guess that I need to check my old foreign language grammar books, but I don't have them to hand.

Maybe it is because the sentence has become rather long winded and the authour feels that it is time for a full stop.

Do English teachers no longer teach that this is a grammatically incorrect thing to do?

So, I respectfully ask this question to non-native English speakers: Why do you feel that is it OK to begin a sentence with "But"?

Addendum

Thank you for the answers and comments. I stand corrected. After further (pointed) research I came across this, from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal:

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)

My English teacher at school was quite an agéd chap and obviously had been taught by a teacher who, in turn, had probably been educated by someone for the above epoch, or if not, then using materials derived from that time.

My next question would now be, "When did the practise of forbidding the starting of a sentence with 'But' cease?" It was certainly alive and kicking in 80's Britain.

  • As you, yourself point out, you're not sure why- this might be a good indication that all Buts aren't bad. See this answer in ELU: english.stackexchange.com/a/49014/17956 – Jim Mar 7 '15 at 22:21
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    Robert Lawrence Trask, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex says: "... contrary to what someone might have told you, there is nothing wrong with starting a sentence with 'but.' But try not to overdo this, since overuse will make your writing wearisome." – Jim Mar 7 '15 at 22:32
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    It might be tempting to hit the downvote button here. However, the question is thoughtfully asked with an open mind. My answer clearly states my contrary position; nevertheless, I upvoted the question – not because I agree with the sentiment, but because there's nothing wrong with asking the question. – J.R. Mar 8 '15 at 2:04
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They still do

Do English teachers no longer teach that this is a grammatically incorrect thing to do?

One day in first grade, in the United States, my teacher told the class that it's wrong to start a sentence with a conjunction. The example she used was "And". She gave a straightforward reason: since a conjunction joins two things, it doesn't make sense to start a sentence with one, since nothing has yet been said that could be joined to something else.*

A few minutes later, we came across a sentence in a book we were reading aloud from that started with "And". Someone pointed it out. The teacher explained, "Well, you can only do it if you're an author."

Lesson learned. The rule is fake.

Not so fast

I could open up the King James Bible to a random page and point out sentences that begin with "And". Anyone with access to Google Books or Google Ngram could beat you over the head with a thousand sentences starting with any conjunction you choose. I hope you would find that unconvincing. People violate subject-verb agreement all the time, it's easy to find examples in "corpora" of any grammatical violation you like—but that doesn't mean they aren't grammatical violations. I'd like to give you something genuinely convincing: an explanation of the grain of truth within the rule, and an explanation of why it makes grammatical sense to violate it.

Sentence fragments and sloppy writing

First, let's look at the real basis of the rule.

When children are learning to write, they often don't understand the difference between a complete sentence and a sentence fragment. They don't understand yet that written language is not merely a transcription of speech, but a refined, more formal version of the language. In written language, we normally expect a sentence to express a proposition clearly: to affirm or deny a predicate of a subject. Conjunctions play a simple and straightforward role in this: they join elements of sentences together. "You can have cake and ice cream but not coffee or cigarettes."

As my first-grade teacher said, there is something odd about starting a sentence with a conjunction when there's nothing to join yet. When children are just learning to write, requiring them to use conjunctions only for their primary role as joiners of elements within sentences can be a useful, temporary constraint. Temporary constraint is a very effective teaching method for many skills: by focusing you on one way of doing something, you master it much more quickly than without the constraint; and when you release the constraint, you gain keen insight into the full range of what's really possible beyond it.

People who haven't mastered the strict use of conjunctions, or who don't know a sentence from a sentence fragment, often put conjunctions at the beginnings of sentences carelessly and sloppily, as in the examples you offered. Many real-life examples are much worse, of course. The authors of such writing haven't gathered and organized their thoughts in way that is suitable for clear writing. To a reader, it comes across as incoherent and careless. Much writing that starts a lot of its sentences with conjunctions is quite tiresome. Just have a look at YouTube comments or the Book of Mormon.

Beyond the constraint

Another book I read when I was a little boy told a story about a princess who was looking for a husband. She rejected one of her suitors because he began every sentence with "I". That little tidbit teaches much wisdom! People who start every sentence with "I" quickly become tiresome. It's a thoughtless, inconsiderate, unempathic way of speaking.

But does that mean that starting a sentence with "I" is ungrammatical? Of course not. Grammar is only the nuts and bolts of how words connect and inflect to make meaning. What you choose to mean is outside the scope of grammar.

Even though conjunctions at the start of sentences can be tiresome, they serve an important grammatical role there:

    They join elements of discourse at a higher level than within a sentence.

When used at an opportune moment, to signal a reversal from a previous line of thought or to deny the expected outcome of a sequence of events just described, "But" at the beginning of a sentence can make clear, well-organized rhetoric. Upon seeing a sentence starting with "But", outside its usual role as signaler of an exception within a sentence, the reader understands that the new sentence as a whole will describe a reversal or exception to the preceding sentences.

"But" at the start of a sentence is most commonly useful to deny an expectation that arose from several preceding sentences, or to introduce a compound sentence containing several exceptions, but of course that can't be a rule. When to use it is a rhetorical choice, subject simultaneously to all the considerations of rhetoric. Its grammatical role, as joiner and organizer at a higher level than within a sentence, is straightforward.


* Obviously, that only applies to coordinating conjunctions, not subordinating conjunctions. Let's not split hairs.

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    Although Google books and ngrams are generally unconvincing as the corpus contains all sorts of stuff, the KJV is part of an extremely convincing argument. The KJV is widely admired as an excellent example of English writing. Lots of sentences beginning with conjunctions in the KJV and other great literature is a strong argument that it is not only acceptable but can be admirable when done well. – David Richerby Mar 8 '15 at 10:45
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    +1 Like all your answers, at once accurate, intelligible and humane. – StoneyB Mar 8 '15 at 10:48
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    @DavidRicherby Umm ... An awkward example. Most of those opening conjunctions in KJV (specifically in the OT) are translation artefacts. Biblical Hebrew puts the verb first in a sentence, and the tense/aspect ordinarily employed in narrative has a wa- prefix. In other contexts wa means and, and that's how Tyndale and his KJV successors translated it. Those pounding ands ain't Hebrew and they ain't English; that they work so well is partly a function of their strangeness: they move the text into a uniquely 'Biblical' register. So: serendipity - or a gift of the Holy Spirit. :) – StoneyB Mar 8 '15 at 11:06
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    @StoneyB: To be clear: many, many scholars of Biblical Hebrew maintain that vav hahipukh does mean "and". You're welcome to disagree -- you won't be alone -- but it's wrong to suggest that Tyndale and the KJV translators were uninformed. (Obviously they got the tense correct in English, so it's not as though they simply mistook it for vav hakhibur.) – ruakh Mar 9 '15 at 3:21
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    A random page of the KJV isn't guaranteed to have sentences starting with a conjunction, but the first page is. – Jon Hanna Mar 9 '15 at 12:45
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There is nothing inherently wrong with beginning a sentence with any conjunction, including but. Some stylists have deprecated it, and some English teachers still enforce it; but it has never been anything more than a house rule. It has been continually ‘violated’ by writers—including many of the Best Writers—in every register and every age of English literature.

I’ve never looked to see where and when this “rule” arose, but the history of similar ‘superstitions’ (the characterization is Fowler’s) suggest that it surfaced in the 18th century as a perfectly reasonable recommendation to use the device sparingly, and hardened into a doctrine among 19th century schoolmasters and schoolmarms.(see below)
It appears that educators use this “rule” to stamp out two common tendencies among young writers: 1) sustaining the flow of narrative and exposition by beginning virtually every sentence with and or but or so, and 2) making this a license to isolate sentence fragments as full sentences.

It’s basically what I call a ‘baby rule’, forbidding a given practice until the practitioner is experienced enough to know when it’s safe to use it. I don’t think there’s any need for it around here; even our rank beginners are grown-ups, too sophisticated in their own languages to need that sort of restriction.

<rant>
(But if you want something real to grouse about, I suggest you take aim at the absurd practice, now epidemic in business writing, of following conjunctions with commas.)
</rant>


Catija asks for examples from the Best Writers. Here are three, from the past three centuries, by authors who cannot conceivably be accused of innovative barbarism or vulgar colloquiality:

… The western isle might be improved into a valuable possession, and the Britons would wear their chains with the less reluctance, if the prospect and example of freedom were on every side removed from before their eyes.
But the superior merit of Agricola soon occasioned his removal from the government of Britain …    —Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Everybody, too, would be willing to admit, as a general proposition, that the critical faculty is lower than the inventive. But is it true that criticism is really, in itself, a baneful and injurious employment ; is it true that all time given to writing critiques on the works of others would be much better employed if it were given to original composition, of whatever kind this may be?
   —Matthew Arnold, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time

Significant though that breakthrough was, however, and though he passed another civil rights bill in 1960, liberal antagonism toward him had softened scarcely at all since the bills were weak, only meagre advances toward social justice, and because his championing of them was regarded by most liberals as mere political opportunism: an attempt to lessen northern opposition to his presidential candidacy.
But although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals.
  —Robert Caro, The Passage of Power


My conjecture that the prohibition of sentence-initial coordinating conjunctions would be found to have originated among 18th-century normative grammarians appears to be false. Goold Brown (The Grammar of English Grammars, 1851), who takes great pleasure in discovering and exploring “disputed points”, does not mention this matter, but states flatly that “The period is often employed between two sentences which have a general connexion, expressed by a personal pronoun, a conjunction, or a conjunctive adverb [emphasis mine].”

The “rule” does arise in educational circles. George Payn Quackenbos, in Advanced Course of Composition and Rhetoric, 1857, 88, is the first author I find taking issue with the practice:

[I]t is not proper to place a period immediately before a conjunction which closely connects what follows with what precedes. This is frequently done in the translation of the Scriptures, where we have verse after verse commencing with and; but it is not authorized by good modern usage. In such cases, either the passage so introduced ought to form part of the preceding sentence, and be separated from it only by a colon or semicolon; or else, if this is impracticable on account of the great length or intricacy it would involve, the following sentence should be remodelled in such a way as to commence with some other word. These remarks apply to all conjunctions that form a decided connection between the parts; such as merely signify to continue the narrative, and imply no connection with what precedes, may without impropriety introduce a new sentence.
 As the substance of the preceding paragraph, we may lay down the following general rule, remembering that there are occasional exceptions:—A sentence should not commence with the conjunctions and, for, or however; but may do so with but, now, and moreover.

M. Barrett’s remarks on Misuse of the Word “And” in The American Educational Monthly for April, 1870, 159-60, elevates Quackenbos’ measured deprecation of sentence-initial and to a frank prohibition [the spelling is his]:

 ”And” is a conjunction, whose office is explained in the etymology of the word “conjunction”, i.e. to join together. Says Webster, “it signifies that a word or part of a sentence is to be added to what preceeds.”
 The period indicates a completion, and is used to separate that which preceeds from what follows. It is properly called a full stop.
 Then, it is evidently improper, inconsistent, and contradictory to commence a sentence after a period with the conjunction and. The one tells us to divide, the other tells us to unite, and both at the same time.

This is answered in the May issue, 204-5 by ‘S.W.W.’, who points out that the argument ‘proves too much’, is ‘sophistical’, and is ‘opposed to the practice of scholarly writers’ such Steele, Addison, Junius, and Macauley, and concludes

 That the conjunction and is often improperly used, not only at the commencement of sentences but elsewhere, we admit. But the idea that a sentence should never begin with it is absurd. It would be quite as sensible and worthy of consideration to insist that a sentence should never begin with but or nor.

(You can read Mr. Barrett’s heated rejoinder in the July issue, 289-93.)

By 1885 both the “rule” (at least with respect to and) and the resistance seem to have reached Scotland, where a schoolgirl in Louisa M. Gray’s Mine Own People) complains

 ”My essay was best again,” said Gretchen. “Well, you and I, Anna, who know what a poor piece of composition it was, may guess what the others were like! But would you believe it?—Mr. Anderson objected to one of my sentences, because it began with ‘And!’ Now, wasn’t it ridiculous? Anna, isn’t it perfectly allowable to begin a sentence with ‘And ?’ Don’t the very best authors do it?”

I’m on Gretchen’s side.

  • This is great. How about some examples from your best writers? – Catija Mar 7 '15 at 22:46
  • @Catija See this answer. – tchrist Mar 7 '15 at 23:10
  • @Catija As you wish. – StoneyB Mar 7 '15 at 23:26
  • @StoneyB YAY! Lovely choices. – Catija Mar 7 '15 at 23:28
  • @Catija - More examples can be found at this ELU question, too, which addresses not just but, but also and. (In my answer there, I cite sentences beginning with but from works by Dickens, Bronte, Rand, Melville, Fitzgerald, Huxley, and Henry James.) – J.R. Mar 8 '15 at 1:23
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See my answer here on ELU. I find it amusing to think of you editing for Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Henry James, and Ayn Rand, and telling them all they were wrong.

One of the worst disservices English teachers do is turn recommendations into rules, thereby sending their students into the world with a false notion of what is good and bad writing. Typically, middle school students haven't learned the art of polishing their writing; they often hand in what are essentially rough drafts of fragmented thoughts:

I went to Billy's house on Wednesday night. We had lobster for dinner. Eating the lobster was something I had difficulty with. It was hard to completely eat without a nutcracker! But after that we had dessert. And I wasn't very hungry, so I didn't finish my cake.

Yes, that's awful writing. But teaching the fine line between overuse and acceptable use can be difficult, so teachers sometimes make things easier by prescribing neat little commandments:

Don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
Don't end a sentence with a preposition.
Don't split an infinitive.

However, as O'Conner and Kellarman wrote in Smithsonian,

Perhaps these “rules” persist because they are so easy to remember, and the “errors” are so easy to spot.

Don't start a sentence with but? That bogus advice leads a blogger’s list of five grammar myths. The article goes on to quote authoritative sources that say:

  • “A substantial percentage [often as many as 10 percent] of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions”
  • Starting sentences with conjunctions is “rhetorically effective”
  • “It is a gross canard that beginning a sentence with but is stylistically slipshod”

If you don't want to believe him, just Google "grammar myths" – you'll find plenty of others who are dishing out the same advice.

I'm glad you asked the question here, though. It gives us a chance to set the record straight.

If you ask me, it's time for you to find something else to hate. :^)

  • +1 - A lot of the examples that I see are short sentences, similar to your fragmented thoughts example. – Greenonline Mar 8 '15 at 6:13
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    But Ayn Rand is wrong! *cough* – David Richerby Mar 8 '15 at 10:47
  • And "to boldly go on" are still words to live by. – Cees Timmerman Mar 9 '15 at 9:41
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    @DavidRicherby even Ayn Rand can be correct about something. – Jon Hanna Mar 9 '15 at 12:42
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    @DavidRicherby, "even a stopped clock ..." ;) – A E Mar 10 '15 at 9:24
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I would suggest that notion that sentences "shouldn't" end with conjunctions would, like the notion that sentences shouldn't end with prepositions or split infinitives, be reformulated as "Most cases where a sentence would start with a conjunction, end with a preposition, or split an infinitive, could be written better another way." Consequently, one who would be inclined to do any of those things would often be well-advised to consider whether there might be some better way of saying or writing the same thing, but since "most" is not "all", one should also consider the possibility that in some cases a seemingly-dubious grammatical construct may be clearer than any alternative, and there is nothing wrong with using such constructs in such cases.

Many cases where a sentence would start with the word "but" could be improved by various means:

  1. Joining the sentence to the previous one
  2. Replacing the "but" with a strong conjunction such as "however" (which may or may not be the first word of the sentence)
  3. Replacing constructs like "but for...", consider alternatives like "other than".

Not all such uses are amenable to replacement, however, and there is nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction in cases where doing so is better than any alternative.

  • Points 1 and 2 are the usual solution that I employ. Point 3, as a couple of others have pointed out as well, is not a case that I have an issue with - I should probably clarify the question. – Greenonline Mar 9 '15 at 15:25

protected by user6951 Mar 9 '15 at 17:49

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