28th February 2022
Grammar Tips: Can I Start a Sentence with the Word “But”?
Coordinating conjunctions, such as “but,” are generally used to join two parts of a sentence together. But is it ever acceptable to start a sentence with the word “but”? Read on to find out more!
What the Traditionalists Say
You may have had it drummed into you for years that you cannot begin a sentence with “but.” This rule is a particular favorite of schoolteachers and is thought to prevent the overuse of the word, which is common in children’s speech. For instance:
✘ We went to the library to pick up our textbook. But it wasn’t available, so we looked online. But we couldn’t find it online either…
However, look at this example from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick:
“Despairing of him, therefore, I determined to go to bed and to sleep; and no doubt, before a great while, he would follow me. But previous to turning in, I took my heavy bear-skin jacket…”
No one could accuse Melville of writing sloppy English. So why does he use sentences that begin with a coordinating conjunction?
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Melville’s Moby-Dick is considered to be one of America’s greatest novels.
When Is It Okay to Start a Sentence with “But”?
The truth is, there is no hard and fast rule against starting a sentence with “but”—as long as the sentence is formed correctly. Since this word is intended to connect two thoughts together, it’s important that your sentence contains a main clause. That means it should include a subject and a verb and can stand on its own.
You should also consider the audience for your writing. Although it may be perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with “but” in informal writing, such as in social media content and blog posts, it’s best avoided if you want to achieve a formal tone. For data-driven documents, such as case studies and text books, try using alternative expressions like “however” or “nevertheless.” One caveat: when writing literature or poetry, “but” can be used at the beginning of a sentence to achieve dramatic effect (see the Moby-Dick example).
Be Aware of Style Guides!
When weighing up whether to use “but” at the beginning of a sentence, check to see if you need to adhere to a particular style guide. Style guides are used in the publishing world to set standards for grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Your style guide may specify that sentences shouldn’t begin with a coordinating conjunction. But if not (see what I did there?), the use of “but” at the beginning of a sentence is never truly off limits.
Finally, if you are in any doubt at all about your use of English, why not get your writing proofread? Submit a free trial document today!
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