For years and years, English teachers at elementary and middle schools across the United States would have been astonished by that question. Mrs. Beedle, my fourth grade teacher, would have turned from the blackboard to glare at any student who asked such an absurd thing. (Yeah, blackboards were still being used when I went to school.)
“Of course you may not begin a sentence with a conjunction,” she would have snapped. “Why, the very idea!”
We believed her. Back then, we trusted Mrs. Beedle. We loved how she could explain the rules of English so there were always definite answers, in crisp black and white, with no ambiguity whatsoever. Grammar was rational, comforting, and precise, while the real world was messy and complicated. And Mrs. Beedle was our guide to that land of certainty.
I’m sure some of my classmates went on to become English teachers themselves, and they taught their students the lessons Mrs. Beedle gave us, and their students’ students passed on the same message to later generations. Chief among those lessons was the prohibition against starting a sentence with a conjunction.
But Mrs. Beedle was wrong.
English Contains More Myths Than the Land of Oz Does
In plain fact, most of us have been taught from a very early age certain “rules” of English usage—syntax rules, as they are called by grammar experts—that aren’t legitimate rules at all. We’re talking about rules such as these:
- Never end a sentence with a preposition.
- Never split an infinitive.
- Sentences in the passive voice should always be revised to include active verbs.
- A conjunction may never begin a sentence.
- A paragraph must be at least three sentences long.
No widely respected modern guide to syntax endorses these principles. Even though most publishers and media outlets still discourage using the passive voice, nobody bars it completely from their publications. These rules-that-aren’t-really-rules linger on, however, because they are still passed down between generations in schools and in popular (mis)understanding of what constitutes fine writing and speaking.
Let’s take a close look at what are called the seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, or, so, and yet. These are the words that join or connect two or more items.
Thanks to the popularity of the Schoolhouse Rock animated educational videos, millions of Americans know that the purpose of conjunctions is “hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” That tune never mentions that the coordinating conjunctions can also link up independent sentences. Of course, we know that you can always take two sentences, change the final period of the first to a comma, add “and,” and attach the second sentence to form a compound sentence. But is it really, truly okay for two separate sentences to exist where the second one begins with a coordinating conjunction?
It sure is. People have been doing it since at least the tenth century. Classical and contemporary authors with impeccable credentials have begun sentences with and, but, and or, and nobody has complained. It’s not clear from the historical record when the notion arose that beginning sentences with a conjunction is not to be tolerated. The majority of top usage authorities for each generation has accepted conjunctions at the start of sentences.
There is another class of conjunctions, called subordinating conjunctions, which are clearly designed to show connections and relationships between clauses. Among the subordinating conjunctions are the words although, because, if, since, unless, until, when, whether, and while. Your own familiarity with English should make it easy for you to recognize that these words can be used at the start of sentences. Nobody objects to them there.
However, there is one special rule that applies whenever a conjunction (of either sort) starts a sentence: the conjunction shouldn’t be followed immediately by a comma. Consider these examples:
- A car accident can cause terrible injuries to your bones, joints, and soft tissues. And, unless you act quickly, you may end up paying for the hospital bill even if someone else was responsible for the wreck.
- Diabetic nerve pain is a difficult problem to manage. But, with the care and attention of our team at the Coeur d’Alene Clinic, you can be assured prompt attention to your changing medical condition.
- Are you content to save for your retirement by adding a dollar or two to your savings account whenever you think about it? Or, do you need a systematic investment plan to ensure a secure retirement income for your golden years?
In each case, that comma after the conjunction disrupts the connective function that and, but, and or so ably provide. This is one of those places where you need to take special care not to let extra commas creep into your writing. The exception, of course, is when the phrase right after the conjunction is not essential to the main meaning of the sentence. Consider the final sentence in our examples above, which would normally be correctly written without commas: “Or do you need a systematic investment plan to ensure a secure retirement income for your golden years?” Add an additional clause that isn’t vital to the main thought, though, and you will need commas to set it off: “Or, like so many other people your age, do you need a systematic investment plan to ensure a secure retirement income for your golden years?”
One last issue before we close. I notice some of you grumbling already that when sentences begin with “However,” the word is invariably followed by a comma. “How are you gonna explain that, Mr. Smarty-Pants?” you ask.
Here’s how: many people assume that however is a conjunction because it seems to be an exact synonym for but. But Mrs. Beedle, my fourth grade teacher, taught that however is an adverb—specifically, a conjunctive adverb—and, like other sentence adverbs, it must be followed by a comma when it starts a sentence.
The byways of English can be awfully tricky, even for experienced writers. To hold the attention of visitors to your professional, legal, or medical website, you need to write informative and interesting text that is expressed clearly, grammatically… and sometimes, artfully.
Like it or not, content is king for Internet marketing, as we have told you time and again. Reach out to Foster Web Marketing if you need help generating excellent content or if you’re interested in our content writing service for business professionals. We can educate your team or provide work written to your specifications. Even Mrs. Beedle would approve.