Words to the Wise
I'm Sorry, Mrs.
Willan, But You Were Wrong
On beginning a
sentence with a conjunction
It's always a little painful when the myths we hold dear
explode, when the words of our grade three teacher—as clear now
as the day they were spoken—are found to be, well, just wrong.
So it goes in life, and so it goes with one of the most deeply
entrenched writing myths you're likely to find. No, it is not an
error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and,
but, however, so, or even, God forbid,
Bryan Garner, America's grammar guru and writer of The
Chicago Manual of Style's chapter on grammar and usage,
appears to be on a bit of a mission to disabuse us of this
widespread belief. He says there is "no historical or
for it. "In fact,"
he goes on, "a
substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the
sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has
been so for centuries."
He doesn't stop there but quotes a
famous grammarian of old who calls it a "groundless notion"
says not-too-kind things about English teachers who "go out of
their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it."
conjunction at the beginning of a sentence is an effective way
to link ideas, to draw the reader along your line of thought, to
connect what is coming with what went before. The Oxford
Guide to Plain English says that however at the
beginning of a sentence is "often the best position, since it
tells the reader immediately what sort of point is coming up."
Sadly, there is one style bible that disagrees. Strunk and
White's Elements of Style (4th edition), which
I recommended to you in my last column, advises against starting
a sentence with however when the meaning is
But, I can say—with confidence—Strunk and White
are all alone on this one and seriously out of step. Pick up any
well-written book or article and see for yourself.
Hmm, I wonder if Strunk and White and my grade three teacher,
Mrs. Willan, had something going.
Chicago Manual of Style,
15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago
Martin Cutts, Oxford Guide to
Plain English. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
William Strunk Jr. and E. B.
White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. New York: Allyn &
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