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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, because.

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 grammatical foundation" 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" and says not-too-kind things about English teachers who "go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it."

A 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 "nevertheless." 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.

References:

Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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 & Bacon, 2000.

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