Can I Begin a Sentence with “And” or “But?”

But of course you can! I mean, not every sentence of course, and not in every context, but you probably know what situations you might use them in, and, basically, I say yes, you can use them then. But obviously this is a common question, and often the answer provided is no, so why might someone say that this practice is wrong. First, let’s have a look at what but and and actually are.

But and and are conjunctions, along with other words such as or, either, because, and then.  These are words that join things together, be they nouns, phrases, or clauses. There are two types: co-ordinating and subordinate conjunctions. Co-ordinating conjunctions join two equal things together, and the most common ones are and, but, and or. They might join two words:

I like beer and wine.

Or, two phrases:

I like beer, but not wine.

Or, two clauses:

It was raining, but I had to walk because there was a bus strike.

Subordinate conjunctions such as although, as, before, after, and many, many more, join two unequal things together. As the name suggests, a clause after a subordinate conjunction is less important than the other part of the sentence, the main clause. In fact, the sentence would still work, grammatically, without the subordinate clause:

After our meeting (subordinate clause), we decided on a new course of action (main clause).

Of course, the subordinate clause can’t function on its own. But we’re not really here to talk about subordinate conjunctions. Let’s go back to but and and. Looking at the way we use co-ordinating conjunctions, it would seem that we can’t use them to begin a sentence. Look at the examples above, and we can see that the conjunctions there are all joining things within sentences. And if you think of example sentences for but and and off the top of your head, you’ll probably think of ones in which they work in this way:

I’m working on Saturday and Sunday.

I’m tough but fair.

I like apples and oranges, but I don’t like bananas and avocadoes.

Things like that. They all make sense, and sound natural.

And that’s because, you see, strictly, we can’t use but and and at the beginning of a sentence. Strictly, as they’re supposed to join two parts of a sentence, they need to come between those two parts, and can’t come at the beginning of a sentence. It wouldn’t make sense to say But I’m tough, fair. This probably all seems logical to you, and it certainly does to me. Why then, do some people use them to begin sentences, and why do I say it’s ok to do so?

Basically, because sometimes we want to join two sentences together. That’s what I’m doing whenever I begin a sentence with and or but, and if you’ve been attentive, you’ll notice that I’ve done it a few times in this article. And I’m not ashamed of that. Let’s look at this example:

Look at the examples above, and we can see that the conjunctions there are all joining things within sentences. And if you think of example sentences for but and and off the top of your head, you’ll probably think of ones in which they work in this way:

Here we can see that I’m adding to the point in the sentence before the and. I could have done this by using one sentence instead of two, like so:

Look at the examples above, and we can see that the conjunctions there are all joining things within sentences, and if you think of example sentences for but and and off the top of your head, you’ll probably think of ones in which they work in this way:

That’s very long though, isn’t it? Grammatically it’s ok, but stylistically it’s not great. But you might think: Couldn’t you use something else instead of and, a different word or phrase?

I could. I could so something like this:

Look at the examples above, and we can see that the conjunctions there are all joining things within sentences. In addition, if you think of example sentences for but and and off the top of your head, you’ll probably think of ones in which they work in this way:

Or this:

Look at the examples above, and we can see that the conjunctions there are all joining things within sentences. Furthermore, if you think of example sentences for but and and off the top of your head, you’ll probably think of ones in which they work in this way:

Or I could even go for one of these:

Look at the examples above, and we can see that the conjunctions there are all joining things within sentences. Moreover, if you think of example sentences for but and and off the top of your head, you’ll probably think of ones in which they work in this way:

I think it’s pretty clear that we’ve changed the tone by swapping these words and phrases for and. It’s a lot more formal. And this might be ok for you, but I don’t think it suits my writing style, and it doesn’t suit the way most people speak in normal conversation. So while moreover, for example, might strictly be meant to link two sentences in which we’re adding information in the second that’s related to the first, tonally, it really only works in formal language. That being said though, what about this?

Look at the examples above, and we can see that the conjunctions there are all joining things within sentences. Also, if you think of example sentences for but and and off the top of your head, you’ll probably think of ones in which they work in this way:

That’s not too bad actually, is it? Also is kind of semi-formal, and though I don’t tend to use it myself, it can work to replace and at the start of a sentence. So you don’t have to use and. Still, we can use and for stylistic effect, to be emphatic. Imagine you’re a salesman trying to convince someone to buy a new vacuum cleaner:

  1. It sucks up all sorts of dirt, it’s compact and light, and it’s easy to use. And it even cleans your carpet!

  2. It sucks up all sorts of dirt, it’s compact and light, it’s easy to use, and it even cleans your carpet!

  3. It sucks up all sorts of dirt, it’s compact and light, and it’s easy to use. Also, it even cleans your carpet!

Now we’re only making small changes between these three versions, but I think the effect is very different. The emphatic, stressed and of no.1, with space to make itself heard thanks to the pause before it, really introduces the following information with a bang, which is the effect we want. In no. 2, it doesn’t stand out much from the other features, apart from the emphasis even gives. No. 3 is probably somewhere in between: the information stands out by being in a separate sentence, but then also isn’t very impressive, and weakens the statement a little.

We can look at but in the same way: we could always use words and phrases like however, on the other hand, or although. But again, aren’t they more formal than but? For me, although is the also of the bunch: semi-formal, and an acceptable alternative to starting a sentence with but, if you want to be a stickler for the rules. And none of the above has the emphatic impact that but has.

Now some people might argue that using and and but purely for emphasis simply isn’t good enough, and that grammar rules should always come first. But, we have to consider what grammar is, and as I say time and again, grammar is a system for enabling effective communication. Which is why English grammar has a lot of rules and patterns that generally work, but that also have exceptions for when briefly forgoing the rules allows for more effective communication. And for me, using but and and at the start of sentences is one of these cases where we break, or at least bend the rules, in order to communicate what we really want to. Grammar and style are two key aspects of language, and we take both into account unconsciously when we communicate. Generally, the two get on with their own thing and don’t get in each other’s way, but sometimes we make a reasonable concession with our grammar in order to achieve the style we want, and vice versa. Which is why I do get a bit annoyed when people insist on grammar above all else, even if it gets in the way of clear communication. Not that we should go completely the other way either. And if people insist on only using co-ordinating conjunctions in the middle of a sentence because that’s the style they like, that’s fine. What’s great about language is that we can choose however we want to use it. I’m not going to insist on people using but and and to begin sentences. But if people want to do so, it’s a perfectly legitimate stylistic choice in the right circumstances. And having that choice is just one of the things that makes English such a rich and vibrant language.

8 thoughts on “Can I Begin a Sentence with “And” or “But?”

  1. I love how language enables us to stress something differently just by leaving out or keeping in a comma, or replacing the comma with a full stop. And a lot of it is done automatically, without referring to a rule book until someone corrects us …

    Liked by 2 people

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