Exploring Writing Myths – Session 1

                                         but

  Myth 1: You must not start a sentence with ‘but’

By some people, this ban is even extended to ‘so’, ‘because’, ‘and’ and ‘however’. But it is not a rule of grammar or even a widely observed convention, and may stem from a desire among teachers to persuade children to link up the sentence fragments they tend to write.

Most influential writers in the last few hundred years have ignored the myth. In a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) Mary Wollstonecraft regularly uses ‘but’ and ‘and’ to begin sentences. Jane Austen starts hers with ‘but’ on almost every page of her novels, and occasionally uses ‘and’ in the same position, in the sense of ‘furthermore’. This is one of her buts from Mansfield Park (1814), where it stops the bland first sentence running on too long and heightens its contrast with the ironic second:  

She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation [marriage to a social superior]; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them.

‘But’, like most sentence connectors, signals a shift in pace and direction. It may help in starting an argument or point of view, as in this example from a modern British journalist who, for emphasis, happily begins the final statement with ‘And’:

…’that every child deserves a mother and father’; and so say all of us. But the plain fact is that not every child has them to hand. And in family life, the golden rule is to start from where you are.

Even old-time grammarians felt able to start sentences with ‘but’. In his Manual of English Grammar and Composition (1915), J C Nesfield says:

…it is convenient for the sake of brevity to say that ‘a conjunction joins words to words, and sentences to sentences’. But this is not enough for the purposes of definition.

People sometimes say that starting with ‘but’ is unbusinesslike. But what’s so special about business writing that the norm in every other kind of writing is to be set aside?

‘So’ is a useful alternative to ‘consequently’, ‘therefore’ and ‘as a result’ at the start of a sentence. Sir Christopher Staughton, Former Lord Justice of Appeal, England and Wales, in one of his letter wrote:

So it would seem that the courts may override the words which the parties have used, in the process of interpreting a written contract…

When so many obviously careful writers show by their own practices that they disregard the myth, the best advice is that you may start a sentence with any word you want, so long as the sentence hangs together as a complete statement. Even to begin a sentence with ‘and’, in the sense of ‘furthermore’, is fairly common among journalists and novelists who want its extra dramatic effect. Here, Philip Howard of The Times, writing in 2004 about the altered meanings of military metaphors like ‘putting yourself in the firing line’, uses ‘And so’ (meaning ‘Thus’) to begin a sentence:

As rifles became more accurate, it was no longer necessary or tactically sensible to concentrate your rifles into a firing line. And so our firing line has changed from attackers to targets.  

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