Post by Madrigal Gurneyhalt Post by email@example.com
To clarify my title, my question is how anyone could think
it's wrong to begin a sentence with "But" when it would
sound natural to do so. Obviously we can't just begin any
sentence with "But." The notion that I mean to attack is
that it is always improper to do so in formal writing.
I have begun sentences occasionally with "But" all my life
and have never once been "corrected" for doing so. Nor have
I ever, to my knowledge, seen a restriction against its use
at the beginning of a sentence in formal writing in any
grammar book -- or at least in any grammar book that I respect.
I have, however (or, equivalently, "But I have") seen it
discouraged at an ESL grammar site (not the one I moderate),
and today I heard a British professor say that it was not
formal. And yet I find a sentence beginning with "But" in the
second paragraph of The Declaration of Independence and an
entire paragraph beginning with "But" in the Gettysburg Address.
How did this myth start? I wonder. And who exactly buys into it?
It's a conjunction. Conjunctions conjoin. A conjunction at the start
of a sentence doesn't conjoin. There you go. All the logic needed to
construct the 'rule'. Somebody considered an authority publishes
this argument. It goes into school books. Everybody is taught it is
correct. Bob's your mother's brother.
I looked through a number of grammar books yesterday to see
if I could find any support for this non-rule and found none.
The last two major comprehensive grammars of the language --
Quirk et al. (1985) and Huddleston and Pullum (2002) -- do not
even mention the misconception or feel it necessary to expressly
condone beginning sentences with "But." But both of those revered
tomes begin sentences with "But" regularly, almost on every page.
Regarding your little argument, Madrigal Gurneyhalt, I did find
a passage which addresses the main idea. It's in an old grammar
for nonlinguists, called _A Grammar of Present-Day English_, by
Pence & Emery (1947 and 1963). They say: "Inasmuch as a sentence is
a complete grammatical entity, it cannot be thought of as being
joined _grammatically_ to another sentence, although, of course, it
may be joined to another sentence rhetorically. Hence, _and, but,
for, or, nor_, at the beginning of a sentence may rightly be
regarded as transitional adverbs rather than as conjunctions" (pp.
105-106). And they add the following footnote:
"Of the many myths concerning 'correct' English, one of the most
persistent is the belief that it is somehow improper to begin a
sentence with one of these words. The construction is, of course,
widely used today and has been widely used for generations, for
the very good reason that it is an effective means of achieving
coherence between sentences and between larger units of discourse,
such as paragraphs."
Interestingly, in _The King's English_, not only do the Fowler
brothers not proscribe sentence-initial "but," but they use it
regularly. Opening the book to the part where they prescribe their
intricate views of how they believe "shall" and "will" ought to be
used, I found four sentences of theirs beginning with "But" in a
mere two pages:
"With _will_, the meaning must be: We won't call them three or
four to one, because that would be exaggeration. But the meaning is
intended to be: We will call them that, and it will be no
exaggeration. . . . It is possible that this is the use of _will_
described as the 'habitual' use -- he will often stand on his
head -- under Rule 1. But this is very rare, though admissible, in
the first person of the present. . . . In the next two, if 'I think',
and the if-clause, were removed, the _shall_ and _will_ would stand,
expressing resolve according to Rule 2. But with those additions it
is clear that prophecy or pure future is meant; and _shall_ and _will_
should be _will_ and _shall_. . . . But with the plain-future system
there is difficulty and some inconsistency" (_The Kings English_, 1906,