Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

But?

Is it, or is it not, OK to begin a sentence with the conjunction “but”? Some folks I know—mostly teachers adhering hard and fast to a grammar book—say never use “but” to start a sentence.

But I sometimes use “but” as a sentence starter. Am I right? You betcha!

Using “but” as an opener can be fine, even desirable, depending upon your purpose. Using other coordinating conjunctions—such as “and” or “or”—can work, too.

In dialogue, characters often speak in sentence fragments. That's how real people talk. Using “but” to start a sentence that a character actually says is fine.

In narration, “but” can be used as a synonym for “however” if you put a comma after it. Without a comma, “but” can be an effective way to begin an anti-climactic statement. It can add shading to the meaning of a sentence or can establish the writer's tone or style.

Just to make sure my opinion of using “but” was correct, I indulged in a bit of research. For example, I checked online at a reputable source that gives “but” the thumbs up:

Beginning a Sentence with And or But

A frequently asked question about conjunctions is whether and or but can be used at the beginning of a sentence. This is what R.W. Burchfield has to say about this use of and:

There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. An initial And is a useful aid to writers as the narrative continues.

The same is true with the conjunction but. A sentence beginning with and or but will tend to draw attention to itself and its transitional function. Writers should examine such sentences with two questions in mind: (1) would the sentence and paragraph function just as well without the initial conjunction? (2) should the sentence in question be connected to the previous sentence? If the initial conjunction still seems appropriate, use it.
from The New Fowler's Modern English Usage
edited by R.W. Burchfield. Clarendon Press: Oxford, England. 1996.
Used with the permission of Oxford University Press.


Next, I checked some books that I keep handy for reference:

From p. 117 in On Writing Well (fifth ed.), the eminent stylist William Zinsser notes that conjunctions can be effective mood changers:

I can’t overstate how much easier it is for readers to process a sentence if you start with “but” when you’re shifting direction, or, conversely, how much harder it is if they must wait until the end to realize that you’ve shifted.

Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change. If you need relief from too many sentences beginning with “but,” switch to “however.” It is, however, a weaker word and therefore needs special placement. Don’t start a sentence with “however”—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with “however”—by that time it has lost its howeverness. Put it as early as you reasonably can—as I did three sentences ago. Its abruptness then becomes a virtue.

From p. 185 of Woe Is I, Patricia O’Connor not only puts to death some myths about usage, she gives them an inscription on their tombstones:

TOMBSTONE: It’s wrong to start a sentence with and or but.

R.I.P: But why’s it wrong? There’s no law against occasionally using and or but to begin a sentence.

Over the years, some English teachers have enforced the notion that and and but should only join elements within a sentence, not to join one sentence with another. Not so. It’s been common practice to begin sentences with them since at least as far back as the tenth century. But don’t overdo it, or your writing will sound monotonous.

From p. 121 of Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose, Constance Hale says this about using conjunctions to start sentences:

A-student types who memorized everything their English teacher said insist that coordinating conjunctions cannot begin sentences. If editors ever try to feed you such wrongheadedness, throw these gems their way: And God said, Let there be light; and there was light (Courtesy, the Old Testament) Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to. (Courtesy, Mark Twain) And after all, the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. (Courtesy, Katherine Mansfield)
There you have it: Several authorities say it’s OK to use “but” to start a sentence.

But you already knew that, didn’t you?

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