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General Ambrose Burnside Previous Post: Why do we call the short whiskers at the side of a man's face sideburns?

Grammar myths #2: please miss, can I start a sentence with a conjunction?

‘No, young lady, it is an unspeakable offence against the English language, and I will mark any such errors with a large red circle and make a public example of you by reading out your ungrammatical prose to the whole class.’

An imaginary conversation, true, but hands up all those whose English lessons at school were marked by the stern admonition: ‘Never begin a sentence with a conjunction!’. I was taught this ‘rule’ as a grammatical diktat back in the 1970s, and a quick trawl of the Net shows that the same advice is still being handed down to English students on many websites.

And yet perfectly respectable writers employ this disputed usage, and have done since Anglo-Saxon times. Many grammar and usage experts have also tried to squash this myth, but it seems to be set in stone. Here’s my own attempt to chip away at the foundations of this grammatical ‘superstition’ (as Henry Fowler terms such mistaken beliefs), in the second of Oxford’s Myth Debunkers series.

Conjunctional clarifications

To find out the rationale (if any) for the ban on introductory ands (and buts, and even becauses), let’s go back to basics: what’s a conjunction and what role does it play?

  • A conjunction is a word such as and, but, because, while, until, although, or if.
  • Conjunctions are a class of word used to link sentences, clauses, phrases, or other words.

There are two main types of conjunction:

A coordinating conjunction is one that joins elements of a sentence that are equally important. English has just seven of these: and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet.

  • You can remember the coordinating conjunctions by arranging their initial letters into a handy acronym:

F[or] A[nd] N[or] B[ut] O[r] Y[et] S[o].

  • Coordinating conjunctions link words:
Many soups also include potatoes or dumplings.
        noun coordinating conjunction noun

phrases:

Serve the ribs with creamy mashed potatoes or crusty white bread.
noun phrase coordinating conjunction noun phrase

or clauses:

I can do simple stuff, such as peeling potatoes or chopping leeks and apples.
subordinate clause coordinating conjunction subordinate clause

So much for the elements of a sentence – below I’ll also look at sentences themselves.

All the above examples of coordinating conjunctions show connection between elements of equal status in a sentence.

Subordinating conjunctions, on the other hand, link a main clause of a sentence to a subordinate one (i.e. the subordinate clause doesn’t mean anything on its own – it needs the main clause to complete the meaning).

  • This type of conjunction includes the words because, until, unless, since, if, and although.
  • Here are some examples:
He has the respect of the players because they know how good he is.
main clause subordinating conjunction subordinate clause

 

He says he has the team shirt, although I’ve never seen him wear it.
main clause subordinating conjunction subordinate clause

 

If you have a complaint, write to the director.
subordinating conjunction subordinate clause main clause

As you can see, subordinating conjunctions can be placed at the start of a sentence with no breach of grammatical ‘rules’. But what about ‘because’? More on this special case below…

Back to the diktat…

So the heart of the ban on starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ seems to lie in the fact that they are coordinating rather than subordinating conjunctions, and as such are typically used to link elements of equal status within a sentence. 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’. If your teachers or your organization are inflexible about this issue, then you should respect their opinion, but ultimately, it’s just a point of view and you’re not being ungrammatical. If you want to defend your position, you can say that it’s particularly useful to start a sentence with these conjunctions if you’re aiming to create a dramatic or forceful effect. As the following examples show, the introductory conjunction gives more weight to the thought expressed in the sentence (a comma would be far less emphatic):

It’s a pretty smart and progressive budget. But do you think those changes go far enough?

Some people are calling this film the worst movie ever. And who are we to argue?

Putting ‘but’ or ‘and’ at the start of a sentence is also an effective way of showing surprise:

Dworkin’s answer is no. But why not?

Who would have thought it? And is it really true?

You could also refer to the fact that you’re in very good company (examples can be found in the work of writers such as Susan Sontag, Vladimir Nabokov, Kingsley Amis, P.G. Wodehouse, and Albert Einstein) and that highly respected grammar and usage guides (such as Fowler and Garner) all agree that it’s a perfectly acceptable practice.

Just a word of warning, though: although you now have grammatical ‘permission’ to start a sentence this way, don’t go overboard! It’s perfectly acceptable to use this device judiciously, but remember there’s no value in separating short statements with full stops when you’re not intending to make an emphatic effect:

X They walked to the top of the hill. And then they had a rest. And ate their sandwiches.

Hoorah! But hang on a minute, what about ‘because’?

Because I say so!

‘Because’ is a subordinating conjunction, and as we’ve seen, these are perfectly acceptable at the start of a sentence. While no one objects to a sentence that starts with ‘if’, ‘although’, or ‘since’, ‘because’ is a different kettle of fish. Many of us have been taught the same ‘rule’ as for ‘and’ and ‘but’, banning us from using ‘because’ to introduce a sentence.

This probably stems from the fact that teachers find that younger students may open a sentence with ‘because’ but only follow it with a subordinate clause – that is, they tend to write in short bursts, rather than complete the thought with a main clause in the same sentence:

X  We went swimming. Because it was so hot.
Sentence subordinate clause

All you need do to avoid such an incomplete fragment is to link the two together to make a logical progression of thought in the same sentence:

Because it was so hot, we went swimming.
subordinate clause main clause

Moreover, in day-to-day speech you’ll often find ‘because’ at the start of an answer to a question, whether spoken or implied. Most people will recognize ‘Because I say so!’ as an exasperated parental response to continual questioning by offspring, and few would think it was ungrammatical. And finally, probably the most famous example of an introductory ‘because’ is to be found in the advertising slogan ‘Because I’m worth it!’ (perhaps replying to an implicit question ‘Why spend all that money on cosmetics?’).

But have I succeeded in debunking this particular myth? I sincerely hope so (and yes, I’ve been deliberately sprinkling introductory coordinating conjunctions throughout this piece!).