Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 71: What's Your Function, Again?

Today we're putting to rest another long-held grammar myth. In an effort to keep writing clean and concise, English teachers often instruct students not to begin sentences using the coordinating conjunctions and, or, but, so, for, or yet. Obeying the letter of the law, some prescriptivists would argue that the following sentences are out of bounds:
"Daisy was my second cousin, once removed, and I'd known Tom in college. And just after the war, I spent two days with them in Chicago."

"'What?' I inquired politely. But evidently he was not addressing me, for he dropped my hand and covered Gatsby with his expressive nose."

The reasoning goes that such sentences are not sentences at all, but are rather sentence fragments, and therefore are incorrect. But modern style guides reverse this rule, except when writing is expected to be very formal. In fact, initial conjunctions can be extremely useful. In The Handbook of Good English, author Edward Johnson explains why:
It is true that a sentence that begins with a conjunction — something joining its thought to the thought of the preceding sentence — can hardly be anything but a fragment of the complete thought, but that is no justification for such a rule. After all, in a well-written paragraph each sentence should add its thought to the thoughts of preceding sentences whether or not it begins with a conjunction.

Johnson goes on to say that taking excessive pains to avoid an initial conjunction may actually weaken or detract from the intended emphasis or meaning of the sentence. That said, the danger in beginning sentences with conjunctions is that they sometimes make readers work harder than they need to in order to discern the meaning of a sentence. Take this example:
She was devastated. For her brother, who was her closest friend...

Readers have no idea whether the word for is being used as a conjunction — continuing the thought of the previous sentence — or a preposition, describing what the woman had for her beloved brother. At this point the sentence could end this way:
She was devastated. For her brother, who was her closest friend, betrayed her.

Or this way:
She was devastated. For her brother, who was her closest friend, she had nothing left.

In either example, it's likely that even when the meaning becomes clear, a reader will be forced to reread the sentence to ensure it is understood. With that caution in mind, beginning sentences with coordinating conjunctions is a practice that should be used sparingly. As Patricia O'Connor says, pointedly, in her guide, Woe is I,
And it's fine to start a sentence with one. But not too often. Or you'll overdo it.

Sources: The Handbook of Good English by Edward D. Johnson, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Woe is I by Patricia O'Connor.

Music from this Episode: "Don't Let's Start" by They Might Be Giants; "Conjunction Junction" by Bob Dorough.

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