BUT IT JUST ISN’T A RULE

Remember all those English teachers who drummed it into your head that you can not ever, under any circumstances, begin a sentence with the words but or and? Well, they were wrong, and I’ve found myself having to all but torture proofreaders and copy editors into understanding that, so ingrained is the misconception. Some of them still mark every instance, no matter how strong a case I make. But it really, really, really is okay.

And you don’t have to take my word for it. Let’s ask a few of the experts.

In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner wrote:

“It is a gross canard that beginning a sentence with but is stylistically slipshod. In fact, doing so is highly desirable in any number of contexts, and many stylebooks that discuss the question quite correctly say that but is better than however at the beginning of a sentence . . .”

I love that: “It is a gross canard.” Don’t you wish you could talk like that? “Good day to you, sir, and your gross canards. I said, good day!”

And from the same source:

“It is rank superstition that this coordinating conjunction [and] cannot properly begin a sentence . . .”

This is further backed up in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Third Edition, Edited by R.W. Burchfield:

“There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. An initial And is a useful aid to writers as the narrative continues.”

The passage then goes on to show examples from Shakespeare, but that’s not all Fowler’s has to teach us.

“The widespread belief that But should not be used at the beginning of a sentence seems to be unshakeable. Yet it has no foundation.”

Okay, so now do you believe me? Are you ready to seek out all your middle and high school English teachers and send them a link to this page? Go ahead. Anything anyone can do to stop the blind application of fake rules is okay by me, as long as you don’t resort to violence.

Save that for people who tell you screenplays should never have voice overs.

—Philip Athans

SOURCES

A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner, Oxford University Press, 1998.

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Third Edition, Edited by R.W. Burchfield, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to BUT IT JUST ISN’T A RULE

  1. Leticia says:

    I’m so GLAD I found this. I, too, have had the same problem with people who refuse to take my advice. Amazingly, these same people will steadfastly stick to their fake rules, even with a copy of Fowler’s shoved on their noses.

    It’s incredible – but I do enjoy knowing that I’m not alone! Thank you very much!

  2. Pingback: BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS IX: THE ESSENTIALS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  3. Shawn says:

    I might cry from pure joy! Thank you so much! I do have to admit that I still feel a little weird beginning a sentence with And but I’ve never understood the But rule. I had to practically force myself to use However because I always thought I would look foolish using But but now I’m happy that (and I never thought I would say this) that I am the fooled rather than the foolish. And for anyone who says you are wrong (oh, look, I just did it), all I have to say is, “B-b-b-b-but nothing!”

  4. william oconnor says:

    And the final stake in this gross canard is Sean Connery in “Finding Forrester” calling it out as a falsehood. You cannot have a better authority backing you than James “Shaken, not stirred” Bond.

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