On Starting a Sentence With a Conjunction

The more time I’ve spent writing my novel and refining my style, the more strongly I’ve come to reject the commonly expressed prohibition on starting a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but.” Here’s what CliffsNotes.com has to say about it:

The idea that you shouldn’t begin a sentence with a conjunction is one of those “rules” that really isn’t — along with some others you’ve probably heard, like “never split an infinitive” and “don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” Your writing won’t be automatically bad if you break these “rules,” and the greatest writers of English have been breaking them for ages. For example…

The author then proceeds back up his claim with quotes from Moby Dick, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Scarlet Letter. To which I can only add, “amen.”

That this is a technique that can be misused or overused, especially among grade-school students just learning to write, should go without saying. I would be very surprised, in fact, if the utility of the rule in helping to impose structure, and to stamp out fragmented writing in young students, weren’t the reason why the prohibition came into vogue in the first place. But for adults who have long mastered these basic elements of structure and style the rule has not only outlived its usefulness, but becomes actually harmful, I think, to the development of a good writing style.

What is the utility of starting a sentence with a conjunction? I think it’s an issue of the crow. The main argument I hear for this rule is that “a sentence is supposed to express a complete thought.” But some thoughts are sufficiently complex, with enough interrelated elements, that trying to express them in a single sentence simply makes them too long — too long for the reader’s mind to parse easily, retaining an ever growing but not yet fully resolved context. Being able to “connect” two sentences with a conjunction like “and” or “but” thus serves at least two important purposes, one of them epistemological and the other stylistic.

Epistemologically, it allows the mind to parse and resolve the thought expressed by the previous sentence, reducing it to a unit and freeing up “mental space” and tension for the expression of a new thought. But starting the next sentence with a conjunction also holds that previous thought in a form that expresses a clearer and more easily grasped connection to the following thought. And it does it in a way that would “choke the crow” of the reader if it were attempted in a single, long sentence with multiple clauses.

Stylistically, I think the case for starting a sentence with a conjunction is even clearer. When used appropriately it is a useful tool to add emphasis, and provide for a more natural flow between related thoughts. I’m sure this is the reason why so many good writers use it, and why I absorbed the technique into my writing style as far back as high school. And the guff I took for it — and the years of self-doubt they caused, until I finally decided to jettison the prohibition altogether — is the main reason for the intensity of my conviction on this matter.

2 thoughts on “On Starting a Sentence With a Conjunction

  1. Here’s another interesting point, from the Daily Writing Tips website:

    “And she was running very fast” can be written as:

    “Moreover, she was running very fast.”
    “In addition, she was running very fast.”
    “Furthermore, she was running very fast.”

    Certainly this is “formal” writing, and I’ve never thought of myself as someone who could be accused of having “too informal” a style. But just try to build a style on starting sentences like this with “moreover,” “in addition,” and “furthermore,” and not make them sound awkward and stilted.

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