In my October 13 post, I introduced this miniseries on rules we might have learned in school that we can still follow as academic writers but perhaps not as strictly as we did when we were being graded on them. In that post, I covered the “rule”—really more of a guideline—not to end a paragraph in a quotation. Today I’ll cover the rule—in this case an actual rule but one that can be broken if it’s done smartly—not to begin a sentence with a conjunction.
As in the previous post, I want to call this rule a “seldom,” rather than a “never.” Its effectiveness comes from breaking the rule occasionally but not all over the place.
Seldom Begin a Sentence with a Conjunction
The conjunctions of the English language we’ll be discussing are “and,” “but,” and “or.” An example of breaking this rule appeared in my my previous blog post, in which I wrote, “And indeed, most nevers of writing style . . . are subject to creative and effective rule breakage.”
The rule not to begin a sentence with the words “and,” “but,” or “or” is one of grammar, not style, but it leaks into the realm of style because its breakage is so common that it conveys a particular meaning to your audience. Using a conjunction to transition into a sentence can, if done appropriately, add punch to your next point, but if you bear in mind that you’re really not “supposed” to be doing it at all, then it can remind you to keep the impulse reined in. The tiny act of rebellion of the sentence-leading conjunction is where some of that punch comes from.
As with most style choices that add punch, the impact of the sentence-leading conjunction dissolves if you use it too much in the same document. What’s worse, the more you do it, the more it looks like an error as the reader starts to go, “Hmm, does she actually think that’s grammatical?” Where one “And…” in ten pages could be effective, several will cost you credibility as a writer. (Though there are exceptions even to that, which I’ll cover below.)
Also take into account the type of paper you’re producing and its intended audience. I wouldn’t, for instance, break this rule in a job application, a grant application, or a paper for any course in which grammar is a grading criterion. Readers in each of these cases might very well not care, but they also might care a lot. These are stay on the safe side circumstances.
If opening sentences with a conjunction is a habit for you or if it just feels natural, then don’t get hung up on obliterating them in your first draft. You will need to return for a second draft, though, and at that point you’ll be able to see more clearly whether and where you’ve overused them and can weigh which ones add impact and which ones detract from the impact added. You have many alternatives to use as you revise. The best choice will depend on the context, but here are some options:
The easiest and most obvious way to deal with a sentence-leading conjunction is to combine the offending sentence with the one that precedes it. Unless you’ve done something really unusual with your presentation, this will almost always be an option, albeit one that might not carry the same emphasis as you wanted it to.
A. My favorite way to wake up is with a delicious cup of tea. But sometimes I need coffee instead.
The emphasis in this example has shifted a bit; the revision subtly removes the focus on the need for coffee and balances the halves of the sentence. Sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed, though, especially if there are a lot of conjunction-led sentences in a piece.
Further or Furthermore
Remember how I mentioned my own sentence beginning “And indeed…” above? Well, I was so, so tempted to start another sentence in the same blog post with an and but changed it to a further, so that will provide another good example to use here. Although they don’t appear back-to-back in the original, they’ll work fine here juxtaposed.
C. And indeed, most nevers of writing style are subject to creative and effective rule breakage at certain times. And when you break rules before you’re fully accustomed to following them, the breakage isn’t creative and effective; it’s just a mistake.
When I first drafted the blog post, it looked like the first example with “And . . .. And . . ..” Even with additional text in between the sentences, it still reads redundantly. I had to decide which one would sound better with the and retained and which one would work better with an alternative. I also could have done this:
E. Indeed, most nevers of writing style are subject to creative and effective rule breakage at certain times. And when you break rules before you’re fully accustomed to following them, the breakage isn’t creative and effective; it’s just a mistake.
. . . removing the first and altogether. Within the larger context of the post, however, the further option seemed to work best. It’s like even more and but has the bonus of being grammatically kosher.
This is a good option when the conjunction you're replacing is “but.” Keep in mind, however (see what I did there?), that but and however are not used interchangeably; the punctuation will generally need to be altered if you exchange them.
F. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly are considered Joss Whedon’s masterpieces, with Angel and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. following respectably behind. But I think Dollhouse is not without its merits.
Why so many examples here? Because there are a lot of ways to properly use the word however and one incorrect way that I think I see more often than all of them put together.* Here you can apply the simple fix of changing that period into a comma (example G), but because the first sentence is so much longer, the Dollhouse clause might lose all its oomph when it's tacked onto it. H, I, and J exhibit three correct uses of the word however. Notice that it’s not a simple word replacement; the punctuation changes, too. K, in which however does in fact get used as a direct replacement for but, is a super-common mistake; I’ve seen people who were otherwise good writers make this error. If you find it in your writing, switch it out for options G through J; even option F would be comparatively better form.
Meanwhile, some readers will no doubt have noticed that the examples contain a double negative. We can address those in another post on seldoms.
An old reliable that can replace and in some cases. If you decide to use “also,” play with it and see if it works best at the beginning of the sentence or pushed farther inward. As well becomes an option at that point, too. What do I mean by pushing it inward? That’s what I do in example N:
L. My cousin plays right field like a short, female Reggie Jackson. And she’s pretty good at shortstop.
In example N, moving the word a bit makes it sound a bit more natural. It can also strengthen the sentence, as in example J in the however section.
Drop the Conjunction
You might be surprised how often that conjunction isn’t even needed. Sometimes shorter is more powerful.
O. The weather is fantastic here today. But we can’t say the same for the hurricane belt.
Finally, I said above that there may be times when using many conjunction-leading sentences can serve a purpose, too. They’ll be infrequent, and they may not fit within your writing style at all.
Q. I thought I’d packed everything, but when I got to Poland, I realized I’d forgotten my toothbrush and deodorant. And my nice shoes. And my phone charger. And the symphony tickets. And my cousin’s phone number. And my Polish–English dictionary. But at least I had my passport, my wallet, and a change of underwear.
There’s no way this passage would convey the same emphasis if it were structured any other way. The multiple iterations of “And” (and one “But”) draw the focus onto the act of remembering each forgotten thing, one after another. If I used a technique like this in writing, I’d want to be very sparing of conjunction-opening sentences in the rest of the work. I use this example here to show that there is an exception to every rule. Or, in this case, every seldom.
* Probably not really that often. It’s just that mistakes call attention to themselves while correct usage blends in.
5/6/2018 12:14:41 pm
Thanks again for a thoughtful, enlightening, useful post.
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I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.