language corner


What about ifs, ands, or buts?
November 7, 2011

Many generations of students have had certain grammar “truths” drilled into their little heads. One is the “myth” that infinitives can’t be split. But today we’re going to discuss the myth that sentences can’t start with conjunctions.

(Actually, whether teachers do indeed prohibit conjunctive beginnings seems to be almost as much a myth as the prohibition itself. But more on that later.)

Conjunctions, which join things in grammar, come in three flavors: Coordinating, which link things directly (“and,” “but,” “for,” “nor,” “or,” “so,” etc.,); correlative, which are used in pairs and connect parallel things (“both … and,” “either … or,” “neither … or,” “not only … but also,” “whether … or,” etc.); and subordinating, which usually join clauses to other, nonparallel, parts of the sentence (“after,” “although,” “before,” “if,” “since, “that,” “while,” etc.) Note that many subordinating conjunctions have multiple roles in grammar: “After,” for example, is also a preposition; “that” can be a relative pronoun; and many subordinating conjunctions are adverbs as well.

That’s a lot to remember, which may cause some of the confusion: If you can’t start a sentence with “Neither he nor I got any dessert,” options for starting sentences become extremely limited. Which is one reason any prohibition is silly: You end up making most sentences subject-verb-object, which can get pretty boring, not to mention tortured: (“Dessert was given to neither he nor me.”)

The usual suspects, though, are the coordinating conjunctions. So we’ll make it easier:

It’s perfectly OK to start a sentence with “and,” “but,” “or,” and all of those conjunctions. The Bible does it; the most persnickety writers do it; grammar authorities do it. Even going back to early Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage), the prohibition on conjunctions was being dismissed. “That it is a solecism to begin a sentence with and is a faintly lingering superstition,” the second edition says, echoing the first edition.

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The American Heritage Dictionary notes that “this rule has been ridiculed by grammarians for decades, and the stricture has been ignored by writers from Shakespeare to Joyce Carol Oates.” (This is from the Fourth Edition; the Fifth is in the mail.)

But whose rule is it, anyway? Of the dozen or so grammar books intended for grammar schools that we consulted, not one bars conjunctions at the starts of sentences. No reliable grammar website bars them, either.

So who’s prohibiting it, and why? Among the best explanations comes from the Language Log, where the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls the “rule” “No Initial Coordinators,” or “NICs.” Zwicky posits that, because children often overuse “and” in spoken language (“And then we had ice cream. And then we had recess.”), teachers decided “‘If they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all’, and NIC, a blanket proscription, was born. Probably in elementary schools, from which it would have diffused to secondary schools and beyond. And now the zombie lurches on.”

And as he notes, some versions of Microsoft Word’s grammar checker will flag a conjunction at the start of a sentence (another reason to not use it). Where does Microsoft come up with that rule? Its grammar checker is “fully developed and owned by Microsoft,” the company says. So there.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.