One of the first rules of grade-school grammar is never to start a sentence with a conjunction. But in modern usage, the instruction to avoid certain words at the beginning of a phrase has loosened. Using conjunctions to start a sentence isn't always a bad thing — in fact, in certain circumstances, it can improve your writing.
Conjunctions — What’s Their Function?
Quite simply, a conjunction is a word used to connect two clauses or sentences.
Subordinating conjunctions such as “because,” “since,” and “after” link an independent and dependent clause. Correlative conjunctions join together phrases with equal importance in word pairs like “either/or” or “not only/but also.” Most folks don’t stress too much about beginning sentences with these types of conjunctions, though.
The type of conjunction that raises the most controversy when it sits at the beginning of a sentence is a coordinating conjunction. The seven coordinating conjunctions are easily remembered with the acronym FANBOYS — For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So.
Coordinating conjunctions join two independent clauses. That means the word links together two parts of a sentence that could stand on their own.
This assignment is difficult, but I’m starting to understand it.
The assignment is difficult. I’m starting to understand it.
One could completely avoid beginning sentences with coordinating conjunctions. But breaking up sentences and beginning them with a coordinating conjunction may help convey style, mood, or tone.
While the two independent clauses in the above example are grammatically correct as separate sentences, the meaning of the original sentence is lost. The coordinating conjunction “but” implies that, despite the difficulty, the speaker is beginning to grasp the concept.
Writers, Start Your Sentences!
Many reputable grammar guides, including the Chicago Manual of Style and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, say it’s A-OK to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. So, why do teachers tell their students to avoid this?
Perhaps because learning writers tend to develop many of the same bad habits. One such habit is stringing together lots of sentences beginning with coordinating conjunctions. Anyone who’s ever talked to a seven-year-old will be familiar with a paragraph like this:
Today, I went to the park. And then I ate lunch. And I saw a dog. But the dog ran away. And then he ran back again. So I smiled. And my lunch fell on the ground.
When learning the basics of reading and writing, simple rules (don’t start a sentence with a conjunction) make more sense than trying to understand the nuance of word choice and sentence variety. But as writing skills develop, it’s OK to start bending the rules and developing a personal style.
Just take a look at these famous writers who started their sentences with coordinating conjunctions:
“‘And what are you reading, Miss—?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady.” — Jane Austen, “Northanger Abbey”
“Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”
“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea.” — Roald Dahl, “Matilda”
“I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.” ― S.E. Hinton, “The Outsiders”
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