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How And When To Start A Sentence With A Conjunction

Question: In fiction, is it okay to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, yet)?

Answer: Not according to many high school English teachers. The long-enduring rule has been that using a coordinating conjunction to begin a sentence implies a preceding clause to which the sentence should be connected, leaving an incomplete sentence or fragment. However, the majority of modern fiction writers agree that using a conjunction to begin a sentence is an acceptable practice. In fact, creative writers have been doing it for centuries, happily ignoring this “rule” as well as other restrictions, like Thou Shalt Never Use Sentence Fragments or A Comma Must Separate Two Conjoined Sentences. In fiction, the lines between convention and creativity can be blurry. 

Coordinating conjunctions include the words: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Beginning a sentence with one of these conjunctions can lend impact or emphasis to the sentence:

I’d really like to go to college. But who’s going to pay for it?

It was a frigid night, with the wind whipping off the lake. Yet she stripped down and dove in anyway.

It is unnecessary to use a comma after a coordinating conjunction. One exception is “so,” which is often used at the beginning of a sentence as a kind of summing-up device, and in this context, it is usually set off with a comma:

So, needless to say, we ended up moving across the country.

Writer’s Relief offers the moral of the story: As a creative writer, if you begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, fear not—no grammatical rules have been broken, although it’s best to use this technique sparingly for maximum effect. However, keep in mind that in formal communication, business correspondence, and academic writing, you’d be wise to follow the advice of Strunk and White and avoid starting sentences with conjunctions. And not use sentence fragments. (Kidding!)

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11 Responses to How And When To Start A Sentence With A Conjunction

  1. I have used And or But which drives my proof reader batty. When I use those words, I feel it ‘fits’. But as all have said before me, I do use it sparingly. And, by the way, thank you for the thumbs up…Paula Shene, author of Mandy the Alpha Dog

  2. I agree with the ‘sparingly’. Daniell Steele uses them ALL THE TIME and it drives me crazy. That is why I only read one of her books. I enjoy the comments and the bits of widom I learn here. T

    Thanks, LinnAnn

  3. So as not to offend, please rest assured that I’m being pedantic. (Did you see what I did there?)
    “I’d really like to go to college, but who’s going to pay for it?” is one sentence, so I’ve substituted a comma for the full stop. I’ve also used a lower case b. Similar could be said for the tale of the lassie who dived in anyway.

  4. I begin sentences with “But” fairly often in legal writing. But is is clear, simple, and non-rhetorical. Sentences should never begin with “However,” as it is rhetorical and cumbersome. It’s the literary version of a dramatic pause–where no reason for drama yet exists, except in the mind of the reader.

  5. Never say never, Erik! “However” can be quite useful if coming from a specific voice, such as in dialogue or a first-person narrative, and doesn’t necessarily need to be a pause in the sentence. Still, like many conjunctive adverbs, it can indeed become cumbersome if used in excess. The trick is moderation!

  6. It’s fiction, not factual anyway.
    However, I do agree that many times we speak that way, usually as a challenge, or provocation.

  7. It’s common license in fiction (or even non-fiction) to deliberately use sentence fragments for emphasis. Punctuation controls pacing. comma is a “yield sign,” a period is a full stop. If you look at most conjuction-starting sentences, they’re actually following the syntax of a true compound sentence, with only the punctuation/capitalization change. So if it’s a pacing issue (not something often covered in basic grammar), or a case of speakers changing mid-sentence, go ahead. If it’s not, you have to ask yourself why it’s there.

  8. It has been three years since the following, but I just ran across it now apparently. (Starting sentences with “However,”.)

    “Never say never, Erik! “However” can be quite useful if coming from a specific voice, such as in dialogue or a first-person narrative, and doesn’t necessarily need to be a pause in the sentence. Still, like many conjunctive adverbs, it can indeed become cumbersome if used in excess. The trick is moderation!”

    I was mostly talking about legal writing, and I can say straight out that sentences should never start with however in legal writing–unless quoting. Rhetoric has a place in legal writing, but separate from argument. And “However,” at the start of sentence is always argument, as is “but” at the start of a sentence. But even with fiction I disagree that the “trick is moderation.” The trick to what exactly, not being cumbersome? Every word or phrase should be used in moderation when writing so as not to be cumbersome. The question here is whether sentences should ever start with “However,”. In fiction dialog it can be used because people speak that way. Saying that it otherwise can depend on a “voice” is too vague to be credible.

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