How to Begin a Sentence With 'And' or 'But'

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According to a usage note in the fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary, "But may be used to begin a sentence at all levels of style." And in The King's English (1997), Kingsley Amis says that "the idea that and must not begin a sentence, or even a paragraph, is an empty superstition. The same goes for but. Indeed either word can give unimprovably early warning of the sort of thing that is to follow." 

The same point was made over a century ago by Harvard rhetorician Adams Sherman Hill: "Objection is sometimes taken to employment of but or and at the beginning of a sentence; but for this, there is much good usage" (The Principles of Rhetoric, 1896). In fact, it has been common practice to begin sentences with a conjunction since at least as far back as the 10th century.

The Usage Myth Persists

Still, the myth persists that and and but should be used only to join elements within a sentence, not to link one sentence to another. Here, for instance, is an edict found recently on an English professor's "Composition Cheat Sheet":

Never begin a sentence with a conjunction of any kind, especially one of the FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so ).

This same fussbudget, by the way, outlaws the splitting of infinitives — another durable grammar myth.

But at least the professor is in good company. Early in his career, William Shawn, longtime editor of The New Yorker magazine, had a penchant for converting sentence-initial buts into howevers.

As Ben Yagoda reports in When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It (2007), Shawn's habit inspired one of the magazine's writers, St. Clair McKelway, to compose this "impassioned defense" of but:

If you are trying for an effect which comes from having built up a small pile of pleasant possibilities which you then want to push over as quickly as possible, dashing the reader's hopes that he is going to get out of a nasty situation as easily as you have intentionally led him to believe, you have got to use the word "but" and it is usually more effective if you begin the sentence with it. "But love is tricky" means one thing, and "however, love is tricky" means another--or at least gives the reader a different sensation. "However" indicates a philosophical sigh; "but" presents an insuperable obstacle. . . .

"But," when used as I used it in these two places, is, as a matter of fact, a wonderful word. In three letters it says a little of "however," and also "be that as it may," and also "here's something you weren't expecting" and a number of other phrases along that line. There is no substitute for it. It is short and ugly and common. But I love it.

Know Your Audience

Still, not everybody loves initial but. The authors of Keys for Writers (2014) note that "some readers may raise an eyebrow when they see and or but starting a sentence in an academic paper, especially if it happens often." So if you don't want to see eyebrows raised, ration your use of these words at the beginnings of sentences. 

But in any event, don't start scratching out your ands and buts on my account.