LawProse Lesson #180: Conjunctions as sentence-starters
There are certain bits of knowledge that distinguish connoisseurs from poseurs, professionals from dilettantes, cognoscenti from wannabes. In the realm of grammar and writing, it tends to be the sureness that sentence-starting conjunctions are perfectly acceptable and often desirable (connoisseurs), or else the certitude that they are outright mistakes (misinformed poseurs). From at least the time of Chaucer, expert writers have tended to begin 10-20% of their sentences with conjunctions. Grammarians have either been silent on the point–and have begun about the same percentage of their own sentences that way–or have heartily endorsed the technique. From the beginning of the 17th century, no reputable grammarian has denounced it (and before that they were silent).
Oh, but your third-grade teacher denounced it, and how! She wanted to break you of the habit of starting every sentence with “and.” That was a bad habit. So she tried to curtail your habit, neglecting to tell you that you’d ultimately want to have a fair percentage of your sentences begin with conjunctions (especially “but”). But truth be told, she might not have known that.
On any given day or week, check pages of the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, or whatever other outlet for first-rate nonfiction you like. If you haven’t noticed this point before, you may well be surprised. Oh, and if you disbelieve what you’re reading here, look at the work of any recognized authority on English grammar. Almost certainly you’ll find denunciations of the myth that “initial-position adversatives” are bad grammar. The more prescriptive the grammarian, the harsher the denunciation.
One last thing: please don’t think this technique has anything to do with formality or informality. No. It has to do with effective vs. ineffective style. There are ten sentence-starting conjunctions in the United States Constitution. And rightly so. While an ill-informed drafter tends to write “provided, however, that,” a well-informed legal stylist tends to write “But” and to put the exception in a separate sentence.
Please don’t send hate mail. Just look in books. Real books. You choose them. Try proving me wrong. And start observing. Ask yourself why an initial “But” outperforms “However,” why “And” outperforms “Furthermore,” and “So” outperforms “Consequently” or “Accordingly.” There’s a rhythm and euphony behind a sprightly, brisk style. For the mortar words in the language, the monosyllables can’t be equaled.
Kingsley Amis, The King’s English 14 (1997).
R.W. Burchfield, Points of View 109 (1992).
The Chicago Manual of Style 257-58 (16th ed. 2009).
Roy H. Copperud, American Usage: The Consensus 15 (1970).
Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage 64 (1966).
H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 29 (Ernest Gowers ed., 2d ed. 1965).
Garner on Language and Writing 63-87 (2009).
Garner’s Modern American Usage 44-45 (3d ed. 2009).
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 56, 126-27 (3d ed. 2011).
Charles Allen Lloyd, We Who Speak English 19 (1938).
Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage (1942).
Lucile Vaughan Payne, The Lively Art of Writing 85-86 (1965).
John Trimble, Writing with Style 81 (1975).
William Zinsser, On Writing Well 74 (6th ed. 1998).