People and words

But it’s wrong

Here’s a question. Which of the following two sentences do you prefer?

1. But I’ve always written like that.
2. However, I’ve always written like that.

Many people believe 1. is wrong, because they say you shouldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction, which is a word such as ‘but’ that’s used to connect parts of a sentence, clauses or words. ‘And’ is another conjunctive word.

But is it really wrong?

The idea that you’re not allowed to start a sentence with a conjunction comes from what linguists call prescriptive grammar.

Prescriptive grammar

Prescriptive grammar goes back a long time. The seventeenth century poet and playwright John Dryden was one of the first to make prescriptive pronouncements. Other early rule-makers were Samuel Johnson and Robert Lowth.

These men wanted to fix the form of the English language. Their ideas laid the groundwork for grammar textbooks. As result, you may have been taught prescriptive grammar at school.

Prescriptive grammar says you cannot start a sentence with ‘But’ or ‘And’.

But why not?

There’s plenty of historical evidence to suggest you can. The Bible, as early as Genesis 1.2 in the King James Version of 1611, starts sentences with “And then …”.

You can get modern arguments too. For example from Harry Ritchie or Steven Pinker. In his 2013 book English for the Natives Ritchie argues that the classical dictates of grammar are voiced less and less. And in his 2014 guide The Sense of Style Pinker says there’s nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with a conjunction.

Other, and perhaps less controversial language experts that preceded Ritchie and Pinker, such as Henry Fowler and Robert Burchfield, have also rejected what they called the apparently unshakeable belief that conjunctions must not be used at the opening of a sentence.

So, according to these specialists, it’s all right to start sentences with ‘But’. For example, it can be used to introduce an exception, objection, limitation or contrast.

Graceful or forceful

Placing ‘But’ as the first word can actually make a sentence more graceful as the novelist Iris Murdoch has done: “Of course they loved her, the two remaining ones, they hugged her, they had mingled their tears. But they could not converse with her.”

Starting with ‘but’ can also make your writing less formal or more forceful. Just think about Sherlock Holmes’ powerful reply “But, my dear Watson …”

Personal preference

So there’s nothing wrong with ‘But’ at the start of a sentence. It’s a matter of personal taste or individual preference. And that’s what the use of language is about: finding the right words for what you’ve got to say and the people you’re talking to.

Finally, playing with language can be fun. For this post I asked a linguist for an expert opinion. This is what he put in the subject box of his email reply: “Does my BUT look big in this?”