Should you use “and” or “but” to start a sentence?

One of my newsletter readers wrote to ask:

Hi Bette:  Do you agree with the information below? (I’m from the old school, where I was taught never to begin a sentence with “and” or “but.”)

Contrary to what your high school English teacher told you, there’s no reason not to begin a sentence with but or and; in fact, these words often make a sentence more forceful and graceful. They are almost always better than beginning with however or additionally. Beginning with but or and does make your writing less formal?but worse things could happen to most writing than becoming less formal.

Note, though, that if you open with but or and, you usually don’t need a comma: not “But, we did it anyway”; it’s enough to say “But we did it anyway.” The only time you need a comma after a sentence-opening conjunction is when you want to sneak a clause right between the conjunction and the rest of the sentence: “But, as you know, we did it anyway.’

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I don’t agree with using a coordinating conjunction (“and” or “but”) to start a sentence in formal technical and business writing because a coordinating conjunction, by definition, joins two words or phrases in a sentence. I have no problem with using a coordinating conjunction to start a sentence in informal writing (fiction, poetry, blogs, texts, some e-mails, advertising and marketing writing, and personal writing). However, everyone has a different formality scale in their head. I always urge my writing students to write just a little more formally than their reader might, much as they would dress a bit more formally for a job interview than they might on the job.

Further, I suggest, “When in doubt, don’t.”

That said, it is clear to me that more and more people are writing less and less formally. I don’t think that that shift is always appropriate. I’ll continue NOT using “and” or “but” to start a sentence for all my formal technical, business, and medical communication.

Your thoughts?

 

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