Should you start a sentence with and or but?

People tell us all the time that this is wrong: ‘you can’t start sentences with and or but!’

So we thought we’d put the record straight. Here goes…

It’s a myth that it’s wrong to start a sentence with and or but.

The truth is it’s fine, but it fell out of fashion in the 19th-century educational system. People have been doing it, in writing, for as long as people have been writing. And not just any people either – it’s in the American Declaration of Independence, the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens… I could go on. Even the Oxford Dictionary of English Usage says it’s fine.

Champions of good writing like Sir Ernest Gowers and Henry Fowler have argued the case for starting sentences with and and but for years. As Fowler says in his Modern English Usage (2008):

‘The widespread public belief that but should not begin a sentence seems to be unshakeable. But it has no foundation in grammar or idiom, and examples are frequent in good literature…The initial position of but, as with and, is a matter not of grammar but of style.’

But we still regularly hear that it’s wrong or just plain ugly.

So why the misunderstanding? It basically goes back to teachers trying to encourage children to write good sentences. Words like and, but and because can join parts of sentences. Called coordinating conjunctions, they join phrases that, on their own, wouldn’t be a complete sentence.

To stop students from writing incomplete sentences, teachers told them not start sentences with conjunctions. But as long as what comes after the and or but is a complete sentence (has a subject and verb and is a complete thought), it’s grammatically fine.

So our response when people say it’s wrong or ugly is this: it’s not wrong, and it’s only ugly if the sentences around it are. It’s actually an incredibly useful way to make your tone of voice sound conversational. And if it’s good enough for The Economist and The Times, it’s good enough for us.

What do you think?

Does the idea of starting sentences with ands and buts strike a nerve one way or another?