But however…

In a recent blog I pushed back against critics of the serial comma (see here). Coincidentally, shortly after that one was posted, my best friend received reviewer comments regarding a scientific paper she had submitted for publication. One was the following comment regarding the use of conjunctions at the start of sentences:

 “… in deference to conventional usage, please attend to the following: A number of sentences (even paragraphs) begin with a conjunction (But, However…) As these are conjunctions, they certainly cannot begin a new paragraph, and generally, even within a paragraph, ought to be connected with the preceding sentence by a comma or semi-colon.”

Since this friend is an exceptionally good scientist the first thing she did was to fact-check this assertion. She found no support for the reviewer’s claim of some well-established convention regarding conjunctions. Quite the opposite – every authoritative source she could find supported, or at least did not condemn, the use of conjunctions at the start of a sentence.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review: (see here):

Many generations of students have had certain grammar “truths” drilled into their little heads. One is the “myth” that infinitives can’t be split. But today we’re going to discuss the myth that sentences can’t start with conjunctions.

It’s perfectly OK to start a sentence with “and,” “but,” “or,” and all of those conjunctions. The Bible does it; the most persnickety writers do it; grammar authorities do it. Even going back to early Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage), the prohibition on conjunctions was being dismissed. 

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that “this rule has been ridiculed by grammarians for decades, and the stricture has been ignored by writers from Shakespeare to Joyce Carol Oates.”

But whose rule is it, anyway? Of the dozen or so grammar books intended for grammar schools that we consulted, not one bars conjunctions at the starts of sentences. No reliable grammar website bars them, either.

Again, as a good scientist my friend was not willing to accept any one source so she confirmed this independently from multiple sources. Every respected and authoritative site she consulted confirmed essentially the same thing.

So if no major literary authority was or is responsible for these grammar myths, and in fact they have gone to great effort to dispel these, why do many well-educated people adopt and hold strongly to these mistaken beliefs with such strong conviction? The Chicago School of Style article suggested one likely reason. They point out that in grade school children have a tendency to overuse conjunctions, starting every single sentence with “and” or “but.” So in an effort to force their students to vary their writing, some teachers make a “rule” never to use them at all.

It is likely that some students ingrain this “rule” so strongly that they never feel the need to perform so much as a quick Google search to validate their belief, concluding instead that everyone else who violates this unfounded rule must be the ones who are grammatically uninformed.

By the way, here’s a secret. My best friend is also my wife!

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