Can we start a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but? In the not-too-distant past, this was a big no-no. How many times did your teachers tell you to never start a sentence with and? I heard this countless times growing up, and it's a hard habit to break. But break it we should! These days, many style guides and grammarians advocate for starting sentences with conjunctions. Out with the old, outdated, prescriptivist grammar rules, they say! This is all well and good for native speakers, but what about English language learners? Let's review the different types of conjunctions in English, see what the major style guides have to say on the subject, and decide what's best to teach our students.
Conjunctions are words that link two words, phrases, clauses, or sentences. Some conjunctions provide information—the four main functions they serve include contrast, time, cause and effect, and conditional. Though our focus today is on coordinating conjunctions, here is a brief overview on the three main types of conjunctions in English.
These conjunctions link words, phrases, clauses, or sentences that contain similar parts of speech. They function as indicators of similarity, opposition, choice, etc. Conjunctions in this category include the famous "fanboys" (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). For more practice and examples, try our grammar lesson on Conjunctions.
- They like pizza and pasta.
- Do you want to go to the beach or hang out here?
- She knows how to snowboard, but he doesn't.
- I'm not sure what time I get off work today, so I'll get back to you about our dinner plans.
This type of conjunction is at the start of a dependent clause that gives information about contrast, time, cause and effect, or hypothetical situations. Subordinating conjunctions include after, as, although, because, before, if, since, though, unless, until, when, where, while, etc. Conjunctions and clauses of this type are also called conjunctive adverbs, transition words, adverb clauses, and adverb phrases. For more examples, see these posts on Adverb Clauses and Adverb Phrases.
- I went to the store after my mother asked me to buy milk.
- After my mother asked me to buy milk, I went to the store.
- He's eating pizza although he doesn't usually eat gluten.
- Although he doesn't usually eat gluten, he's eating pizza.
- She will take her son to the hospital because he twisted his ankle.
- Because her son twisted his ankle, she will take him to the hospital.
These paired terms link words and phrases. The first part of the coorelative conjunction provides emphasis and can often be dropped. For examples, see this post on Parallel Structure and Paired Joining Terms.
- Both Mark and John have read this book.
- We can have either chicken or steak for dinner tonight.
- Sasha has neither finished her homework nor done the dishes.
- You have not only failed the last text, but also neglected to hand in your essay on time.
Reference: Style Guides
Most major style guides agree that we can begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction:
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.
—Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, 5.206
Part of the folklore of usage is the belief that there is something wrong in beginning a sentence with but.
—Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, entry for but
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.
—Oxford Dictionaries blog
Conjunctions: To Begin or Not To Begin
So what do we teach our English language learners?
As the style guides listed above suggest, most people consider starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction perfectly acceptable. Though I admit it's a hard habit to break, I do tell my students that they can begin a sentence with conjunctions in informal, casual writing.
- Can you believe it? And here I thought I was the only one.
- I have two cats that I love very much. But I don't have anything against dog people.
- Do you want fish for dinner? Or we can have chicken if you'd prefer that.
But just because it's acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction doesn't mean you have to do it or should only write that way! Encourage students to use conjunctions to link up shorter words, phrases, and clauses within the same sentence, and teach them that using a conjunction to begin a sentence repeatedly doesn't sound great.
- I went to the store. And I bought milk. And I paid for it with my debit card.
- I went to the store and I bought milk. I paid for it with my debit card.
Also, remind students that it is common practice to join long clauses with a coordinating conjunction in the same sentence. Point out that when joining two clauses, coordinating conjunctions are often preceded by a comma, especially when the first independent clause is long or has a different subject. For more examples and explanations of comma use in sentences, see this blog post: Commas in Independent & Dependent Clauses.
- I'd like to thank everyone who came here tonight, and I'd like to start by introducing our first speaker.
- He spent hours cleaning the house, but she didn't even notice.
You might also want to mention that it's not considered best practice to put a comma after a coordinating conjunction. In their entry for but, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage states that "the force of the but is weakened by the unneeded comma."
- The book wasn't where our teacher said it would be. But, that doesn't mean we should give up looking for it.
- The book wasn't where our teacher said it would be. But that doesn't mean we should give up looking for it.
On the flip side, teachers are often expected to also teach formal, academic writing. When writing academic essays, it is probably best to avoid starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. Students can instead use subordinating conjunctions (also called conjunctive adverbs, adverbial expressions, transition words, etc) such as however, in addition, furthermore, on the other hand, etc. You should also point out the punctuation used in formal writing. For more examples with however, see However: 7 Sentence Positions & 2 Uses.
- There are many pros and cons to the argument. However, many researchers have hypothesized that the cons outweigh the pros.
- There are many pros and cons to the argument; however, many researchers have hypothesized that the cons outweigh the pros.
- Many resources are listed on this website. In addition, several books have been written on the subject.
- Many resources are listed on this website; moreover, several books have been written on the subject.
What should we teach our students? I tell my learners that it's fine to use a coordinating conjunction such as and or but to start a sentence in informal writing, but that it's still best to avoid doing so in formal writing. For academic and business writing, it's best to use transition words (at least for now).