And: The Rule That Never Was

Every time I begin a sentence with “and”, a voice in my head sings, “You’re not supposed to do that.” I usually fix it and apologize internally to my ninth grade English teacher. So it pains me to admit that after hours of research, I could find no official rule against using a conjunction to start a sentence. Yes, there is a raging controversy about it, but here’s what’s not up for debate: If there is or ever was such a rule, it has a long history of being ignored. I pulled six books at random from my shelves and easily found the following examples.

“And now that you’re mastering the creation of characters, it’s time to ask, ‘How do you plot that story?’” — Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, described on the cover as “a master editor of some of the most successful writers of our century”

“And now I felt that it was not enough; I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon.” — Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

“And what music we used to have.” — “Double Birthday” by Willa Cather in The Best American Short Stories of the Century

“And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President…before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President…” — The Constitution of the United States

“And so the Lord God put the man into a trance, and while he slept, he took one of his ribs and closed the flesh over the other place.” — The Bible, Oxford Study Edition

“And his original Rule 11 was ‘Make definite assertions.’” – The Elements of Style foreword by E.B. White

So famous writers do it–that doesn’t make it right. Those three-letter protrusions are an eyesore. The sentences above are as useless as a wagon trailer that has a hitch but no truck.

Yet I can’t help wondering if these examples seem wrong only because they were taken out of context; they were meant to be read with a preceding sentence. If so, then the entire controversy boils down to a period between two thoughts. When related thoughts are linked by a comma, a semi-colon, or a dash, no one complains; so what’s the big deal about a period? It’s just a little dot, not the Berlin Wall. If we can follow a pronoun back a full sentence to find the reference noun, then why can’t we follow a conjunction back to the related thought?

At this point, a third of you are ready to capitalize every “and” in sight. Hold your horses; I have more to say to you. Another third are defending your English teachers, convinced they would never claim a rule that doesn’t exist. The final third stopped reading at the first mention of a conjunction. They are not interested in remembering that there are three types of sentences: simple, compound, and complex. Simple sentences stand on their own with one complete thought; they have one subject and one predicate. Compound sentences have more than one complete thought joined by a coordinating conjunction. Complex sentences combine independent clauses with dependent clauses.

If you just skipped over the previous definitions, then you can imagine their effect on a room full of teenagers. It may be all a teacher can do to get the basic concepts into young brains, never mind the nuances. A person can succeed in life without ever starting a sentence with “and”, so if a teacher or textbook suggests it is a rule, what’s the harm? We learn a lot in school that upon further experience turns out to be oversimplified.

If you now believe it’s okay to start a sentence with a conjunction, the trouble, as always, is your audience–those pesky readers. Are they going to appreciate your use of unusual albeit technically correct grammar? In formal articles, probably not, so why risk your credibility by jarring your audience with a period and a three-letter word?

In creative pieces, maybe you want to jar your audience. Get them to stop. To ponder. To let a thought sink in. And creative readers are probably more open to grammatical twists used for emphasis. Just use them sparingly to conserve their power. Consider the following:

• Could you delete the “and” at the beginning of the sentence and trust your readers to understand the connection?

• Does your cadence really require a full period stop? Would an em dash do? Could you bridge both thoughts with a semicolon and leave out the “and” entirely?

• Are you just being lazy? Did you add a period simply because you have a run-on sentence that needed a break? Does your entire paragraph now read like a run-on because you have connected all the hard stops with “and”s? Are you using this tool to avoid a complex sentence because you don’t know how to punctuate it?

If you’ve asked and answered all of the above, then feel free to wield the period and capitalize your conjunction. And tell your inner voice to stop crying.

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Krista Tibbs is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of the novel, THE NEUROLOGY OF ANGELS, as well as an illustrated collection of short stories, REFLECTIONS AND TAILS. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and her blog: shadesofwhitematter.com

Author: Krista Tibbs

Krista Tibbs studied neuroscience at MIT. She once had a job that involved transplanting pig cells into live human brains. She had another job that gave her clearance to the White House. Her books, The Neurology of Angels and Reflections and Tails, are mostly not about those things. Learn more about Krista from her blog, and her Amazon author page.

21 thoughts on “And: The Rule That Never Was”

  1. I start my sentences with 'and' and 'but' whenever the mood strikes and the sentence fits, because I've always believed that it could be done, if it was done the correct way! I think this particular rule was given to us in elementary school. But, as with many rules, those rules only applied while in school.

    I think the reader will make the ultimate decision if we have written our sentences incorrectly. And, that is how it should be.

    😉

  2. Speaking of compound sentences – haven't read "Ullyses" by James Joyce or "The Rotters Club", but there have to be a few ands in those books. Until recently, a sentence in Ullyses was touted as the longest sentence in English Literature – "a sentence which clocks in at 4,391 words. Past editions of The Guinness Book of World Records have listed this record."

    "However, Joyce's record has recently been surpassed. Jonathan Coe's The Rotters Club, published in 2001, contains a sentence with 13,955 words. I believe he currently holds the record in "English Literature."

  3. But I'm both a writer and a creative writing/English composition teacher!

    My favorite ploy is starting sentences with "but." And editors sometimes make comments about my doing that, such as: "You like floating conjunctions, so keep some. But there are too many." (See? Even editors make grammar jokes.)

    However, starting a sentence with any conjunction should generally be avoided, especially in very formal writing (in APA or MLA research papers, for example, where even using contractions is forbidden). But almost anything that promotes clarity or creates a desired effect is permitted in fiction and poetry–and in creative nonfiction.

    Although I hammer my students for writing sentence fragments in their essays and research papers, I grit my teeth and write a fragment in my novels and stories when needed. I know other writers break the rules deliberately, too. But they are fully aware of what the general rules or guidelines are.

    So, what's right or wrong grammatically really depends on the context, the formality of the writing, and the effect the writer wants to achieve. "Mistakes" that cause confusion or were unintentional really are errors.

    And, of course, poets can do whatever they like. In my poetry, I'm a daredevil with punctuation.

  4. The Bible is a pretty good source. 🙂

    I like to use and at the beginning of a sentence when I've merely taken a breath and have more to say! I will think about whether its placement is the best way to go, and if I'm being scared of the evil semi-colon.

    Good information, thanks.

  5. I have been called to task for starting sentences with 'and' or 'but'. I do it deliberately, usually for emphasis, to draw particular attention the what, otherwise, would be another clause of equal import.

      1. I do it deliberately for emphasis as well. The 'and sentence' for me is like the pause you'd leave when telling a joke, before the punchline. They need to be sprinkled infrequently though or they get a bit like the present tense, tiring to read. And annoying.

  6. I use "and" at the beginning of sentences. Not all the time. I don't make a habit of it. But, I stopped caring a long time ago when I realized my English teacher was only trying to get us to cut down on doing it. She told us not to do it because it was probably a pet peeve of hers.

  7. I gleefully break this alleged rule all the time. Sometimes I even write a sentence that starts with a conjunction *and* make it a one-sentence paragraph!

    (Uh-oh, did I type that in my outside voice? I think I hear the grammar police coming. You'll never take me alive, coppers!)

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