Etymology Grammar Usage

Are we misguided?

Q: Your effort to debunk the “myth” about not starting sentences with “and” or “but” is misguided. They are conjunctions, designed to joined two groups of words. Your subjective claim that it’s OK to do it is both inaccurate and vague.

A: We assume you’re referring to the brief comment about this on our Grammar Myths page. We’ve written more extensively about the subject in our books and on the blog, including a posting a couple of years ago.

As the Oxford English Dictionary and other authorities say, “and” and “but” can properly be used to join words, phrases, clauses, and sentences.

It is not, and never has been, grammatically incorrect to begin a sentence with “and” or “but.” This isn’t a subjective judgment on our part. It’s a fact.

In an attempt to determine where this belief came from, the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage traced it to a 19th-century writer, George Washington Moon, most of whose works were attacks on other language commentators.

Moon wrote: “It is not scholarly to begin a sentence with the conjunction and.” (From The Bad English of Lindley Murray and Other Writers on the English Language, 1868.)

This single sentence is the only example of the prohibition that Merriam-Webster’s has been able to locate in print!

“Everybody agrees that it’s all right to begin a sentence with and, and nearly everybody admits to having been taught at some time past that the practice was wrong,” M-W says. “Most of us think the prohibition goes back to our early school days.”

The usage guide, citing the author Edward P. Bailey Jr., suggests that “the prohibition is probably meant to correct the tendency of children to string together independent clauses or simple declarative sentences with ands:  ‘We got in the car and we went to the movie and I bought some popcorn and….’ ”

“As children grow older and master the more sophisticated technique of subordinating clauses, the prohibition of and becomes unnecessary,” M-W says. “But apparently our teachers fail to tell us when we may forget about the prohibition. Consequently, many of us go through life thinking it wrong to begin a sentence with and.”

Merriam-Webster’s adds: “Few commentators have actually put the prohibition in print. The only one we have found is George Washington Moon.”

In case you’d like more evidence, here it is.

(1) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum: “Such coordinators as and, or and but can occur in sentence-initial position. For example, speaker A might say, She thoroughly enjoyed it, and B then add, And so did her mother. It is clear that and here forms a unit with so did her mother.” (Page 1277.)

(2) Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed., edited by R. W. Burchfield): “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.”

(3) The OED defines and as a coordinating conjunction that’s used for “introducing a word, phrase, clause, or sentence, which is to be taken side by side with, along with, or in addition to, that which precedes it.” OED citations using “and” to introduce a sentence go back to Old English in the 9th century and continue steadily up to the present.

Under its entries for “but” as a conjunction, the OED says it’s used “in a compound sentence, connecting the two co-ordinate members; or introducing an independent sentence connected in sense, though not in form, with the preceding.” Citations go back at least as far back as Middle English.

(4) Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.): “It is rank superstition that this coordinating conjunction [and] cannot properly  begin a sentence. … Schoolteachers may have laid down a prohibition against the initial and to counteract elementary-school students’ tendency to begin every sentence with and. … The same superstition has plagued but.”

In short, starting a sentence with “and” or “but” may sometimes be bad style—especially if done to excess—but it’s not bad grammar.

Even Moon, the guy who may or may not have started all this, didn’t say the practice was grammatically incorrect. He said it wasn’t “scholarly.”

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