The film Finding Forrester tells a story of a high school student who becomes friends with a famous writer named William Forrester.
Forrester published a single book, then withdrew from public life.
Forrester teaches the student about writing. In one scene, he gives this piece of advice:
"You should never start a sentence with a conjunction… It's a firm rule."
In today's program, we are going to explore that “rule.” Should writers not use conjunctions such as but and and at the beginning of a sentence?
What are coordinating conjunctions?
Many writing students are confused about conjunctions. Perhaps their teacher told them they should never write sentences that begin with conjunctions. Yet, they have seen sentences beginning with conjunctions in newspapers and books.
So, should you or shouldn’t you? Before we answer the question, here are some important definitions.
But and and come from a group of words called coordinating conjunctions. These words connect two or more structures.
Consider this example:
I disapproved of his study habits, and I told him so.
This example sentence has two independent clauses. An independent clause is a group of words that could make a complete sentence.
Let's study the sentence closely.
The sentence has a subject, I, and a predicate, disapproved of his study habits. The second part of the sentence, I told him so, also has a subject, I, and a predicate, told him so.
What about but? Here is an example:
She claimed to be the best student in her class, but I suspect she's joking.
Once again, this sentence has two independent clauses joined by a conjunction.
The important point, writes English grammar expert Martha Kolln, is that coordinating conjunctions connect structures as equals. They show that structures or ideas have an equal weight or importance in the sentence.
There is a difference, however. And shows that the structures go together; but shows that the structures contrast.
Conjunctions can be used with a variety of punctuations, notes Max Morenberg, an English grammar expert. They can even connect two or more sentences.
Using conjunctions to connect sentences can show how ideas relate to one another across sentences. The use of conjunctions can also give a certain flow - or abruptness - to a writer's sentences.
Conjunctions and Style
Let's look at famous examples from literature.
Novelist Vladimir Nabokov is famous for the beautiful way he uses language. Most critics say his 1955 book, Lolita, is a classic.
If you read the book, you will notice that Nabokov sometimes starts sentences with conjunctions.
In one of the first lines of Lolita, Nabokov uses but to start a sentence:
"She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
In this example, Nabokov creates a pattern in the first two sentences. Then, he breaks the pattern by using a different sentence structure.
The word but helps to show a contrast between ideas, and it also helps to create a mix of sentence styles.
Nabokov's use of but at the beginning of the sentence lends a poetic quality. The word adds interest and drama.
Nabokov also uses "and" to begin a sentence
Nabokov used and at the beginning of a sentence, too.
At the end of Lolita, the lead character Humbert Humbert is writing a goodbye to Lolita that he knows she will never read.
In the last paragraph, and begins several sentences. The usage gives the reader the idea that each sentence holds equal importance. It also gives the reader the feeling that Humbert is writing the thoughts as quickly as they enter his mind.
Consider the last two sentences of Lolita:
"I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.
Should you use conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence?
You might think that you should begin writing sentences that begin with conjunctions. Nabokov did it! So did other famous writers, such as Jane Austen and Mark Twain.
We suggest that you be careful about using conjunctions at the beginning of sentences.
Teachers have good reasons for repeating this rule.
First, students often use conjunctions incorrectly. This can confuse the reader.
Second, many students use conjunctions too often. This creates a repetitive writing style. Remember: you should use many different sentence structures when you are writing.
Think of Nabokov's writing – he used conjunctions to give style to his writing. He did not begin every sentence in the same way!
What can you do?
We started this report with a question: can you begin a sentence with a conjunction?
The answer is yes.
Should you begin a sentence or a paragraph with a conjunction?
That answer depends on your writing ability.
The next time you are reading the news or a book, try to look for examples of but or and at the beginning of a sentence. Ask yourself why the writer formed the sentence that way. Does the choice make stylistic sense?
The process of mastering conjunctions can be difficult and lengthy.
But you will make progress -- with time. And we will be here to help!
I'm John Russell.
And I'm Pete Musto.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
Words in This Story
conjunction – n. grammar a word that joins together sentences, clauses, phrases, or words
coordinating conjunction – n. a conjunction (such as and, or, or but) that joins together words, phrases, or clauses of equal importance
clause – n. grammar a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb
controversial – adj. relating to or causing much discussion, disagreement, or argument
contrast – n. something that is different from another thing — + to
aurochs – n. large, black European wild ox, extinct since 1627.
pigment – n. a substance that gives color to something else
immortality – n. the quality or state of someone or something that will never die or be forgotten
repetitive – n. happening again and again: repeated many times