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October 22, 2013
This video originally appeared in LSA Today, where you can find more videos, including an archive of Anne Curzan's discussions of language.
If you're someone who uses the Microsoft Word grammar checker, you may have noticed that if you start a sentence with and or but, you get a green squiggly line under the and or but. That green squiggly line is meant to alert you to a grammar or style issue. But is there really something wrong with starting a sentence with and or but?
When I ask students about the rules they learned in high school regarding how to write well, they almost always tell me they learned: "Do not start a sentence with and or but." I feel quite sure this rule was drilled into me when I was in grade school as well.
If you look in any reputable style guide, however, you're not going to find this rule. It is, in fact, a myth—or, as H.W. Fowler called it, a superstition. If style guides address the issue, they generally say that the "rule" is a myth circulated by English teachers. Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage adds a note that this advice may go back to efforts by teachers to ensure students are not stringing together lots of sentences or clauses with multiple and's.
The Microsoft Word grammar checker, if you pull up the usage box associated with the green squiggly line, will tell you it's an issue of formality: If you want to write in very formal prose, don't start a sentence with and or but. Of course, if you look at published, formal prose, you will see plenty of evidence to the contrary.
My advice? If you're going to use and or but at the beginning of a sentence, use it sparingly. And if you're starting paragraphs with and or but, you might want to take a second look at that sentence, because you are sending a mixed message. A new paragraph says, "This is a new idea." The and or but says, "This idea follows directly on what I was just saying."
In sum, I'm here to tell you, as an English professor, as a linguist, and as a copy editor, it is a myth that you cannot start a sentence with and or but. And you are welcome to do so if it helps your prose.
is Professor of English Language and Literature and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor. She also has faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.