Bogus Writing Rules

"Never Begin a Sentence With . . ."

Large businessman reprimanding small businessman with wagging finger
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Any fool can make a rule
And every fool will mind it.

(Henry David Thoreau)

At the start of every semester, I invite my first-year students to recall any rules of writing they learned in school. What they most often remember are proscriptions, many of which involve words that should never be used to begin a sentence.

And every one of those so-called rules is bogus.

Here, according to my students, are the top five words that should never assume first place in a sentence. Each is accompanied by examples and observations that disprove the rule.

And . . .

  • "Rin Tin Tin grew from being one dog to being a sort of franchise. And as his fame grew, Rin Tin Tin became, in a way, less particular—less specifically this one single dog—and more conceptual, the archetypal dog hero." (Susan Orlean, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011)
    Turning to The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (1996), we find that the prohibition against and at the start of a sentence "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." Back in 1938, Charles Allen Lloyd wrote, "One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves" (We Who Speak English).

But . . .

  • "But breathing, too, is not necessarily easy. It is one of those physical acts on the edge of thought; it can be conscious or unconscious." (John Updike, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, 1989)​
  • William Zinsser acknowledges that many students "have been taught that no sentence should begin with but." But if "that's what you learned," he says, "unlearn it—there's no stronger word at the start" (On Writing Well, 2006). According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, "Everyone who mentions this question agrees with Zinsser. The only generally expressed warning is not to follow the but with a comma."

Because . . .

  • "Because he was so small, Stuart was often hard to find around the house." (E.B. White, Stuart Little, 1945)
    In Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (2010), Joseph M. Williams notes that the "superstition" regarding initial because appears in no handbook that he knows of, "but the belief seems to have a popular currency among many students." This "old-school rule," says Stephen R. Covey, "was and remains a bad rule. You may begin a sentence with because as long as the dependent clause it introduces is followed by an independent clause or complete thought" (Style Guide: For Business and Technical Communication, 2010)

However . . .

  • "There is also the brutal insistence in some Muslim countries that women cover themselves to demonstrate submission to religious, and male, authority. However, I am curious to know what grassroots Arab women think about the scarf, assuming as I do that most items of clothing have a use before religion claims one for them." (Alice Walker, Overcoming Speechlessness, 2010)
    Linguistics professor Pam Peters insists that "there is no basis for suggesting that contrastive however should not appear at the beginning of a sentence" (The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, 2004). In fact, says The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage (2005), "placing however at the start of a sentence can emphasize the starkness of a contrast."

Therefore . . .

  • "There is really no reason why a human being should do more than eat, drink, sleep, breathe, and procreate; everything else could be done for him by machinery. Therefore the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle." (George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937)
    The authors of Writers at Work: The Essay (2008) remind us that "because and therefore are especially useful transitions for explanatory essays. . . . Therefore comes at the beginning of a new sentence."
    So is the start of a sentence always the best place to locate one of these words when you want to signal a transition? No, not at all. For rhetorical or stylistic reasons, and, but, because, however, and therefore often deserve a less conspicuous position, and in some cases, they can be omitted altogether. But there's no grammatical rule that prevents any of them from moving into first place.

Language Myths and Bogus Rules of Writing

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Bogus Writing Rules." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Bogus Writing Rules. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Bogus Writing Rules." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).