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Sentence-initial conjunctions

Q From Bob Maggs: Is it correct English to begin a sentence with and?

A Yes.

Though perhaps overly bald, that’s a fair statement of the view of grammarians and stylists.

Many of us, particularly if we are of mature years, will remember having had it drummed into us in school that we shouldn’t do this. The rule was often broadened to decry but, or, however, so, also and other connecting words.

Free yourself of any concern. All the style guides that I have on my shelves are firm in their belief that it’s perfectly good English. The prohibition is equated with the ones about not ending a sentence with a preposition or not splitting infinitives. All are regarded as unthinking perpetuations of false ideas that take no account of the way in which we actually use the language.

Even writers on style who are usually considered to be curmudgeonly mark it as a non-error. Others dismiss it as “outmoded convention” or “rank superstition”. The first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage in 1926 has no mention of the matter, either because it wasn’t then an issue or because the author thought it not worth mentioning. (Later editions have included it, but only to dismiss it.) When the brothers Fowler wrote The King’s English in 1906, they mentioned the initial and, but only to stress that it shouldn’t be followed by a comma. It’s hard to find any grammarian, of however traditional a stripe, having at any time gone on record to disparage the use of sentence-initial ands. The only one I know was in 1868, who said “it is not scholarly” to do so, a view reflected in current academic prose, which uses it significantly less than other forms of writing.

But there’s often a rider to the effect that, like any grammatical construction, it shouldn’t be overdone. A succession of sentences starting in and reads like a child’s description of what they did on their holidays: “We got in the car. And we drove a long way. And then we arrived at this big hotel. And ...”. Some writers, otherwise puzzled about where the proscription originated, have suggested this may have been where it came from, as a way to encourage children to write in longer and more complex sentences.

Grammarians and stylists often point out that the history of starting sentences with conjunctions in English can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon times. The King James Bible of 1611, that monument to splendid English prose, is chock-a-block with them.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Genesis, King James Bible, 1611. In the first chapter alone, 33 sentences begin with “and”; 11 more occur after colons. The whole KJB has 12,863 instances.

Most of these examples derived from a quirk of biblical Hebrew, in which the letter vav or waw, when used as a prefix, can mean and but can instead change the tense of the following verb. The translators of the King James Bible converted the prefixed vav into and, in the process giving a considerable fillip to its acceptability as a sentence starter. But innumerable writers have used an initial and, albeit in more moderation.

At the end of three yards I shall repeat them — for fear of your forgetting them. At the end of four, I shall say goodbye. And at the end of five, I shall go!

Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, 1865.

This was the first he had let us know he knew a lot more about something than we thought he knew. And it had happened years ago.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, 1960.

Of course you were far too young to remember. But who says? If love travels at the speed of light then it could have other powers just on the edge of the possible. And things create impressions on babies.

London Fields, by Martin Amis, 1989.

I’d go further than just to say it’s allowable and argue it can be a stylish way of introducing a follow-on thought or the development of a narrative; it’s given emphasis through being separated from what precedes it by a full stop.

“Come in,” cried Miss Squeers faintly. And in walked Nicholas.

Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens, 1865.

So yes it is. But use it consciously, in awareness of your intended readership, and certainly not to excess.

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Page created 07 Apr 2012