Can a Sentence Start with “But”?

It’s a question I often heard when I was teaching: Can a sentence start with but?

The answer is simple: Yes.

For years I offered $100 in cash to any student who could find the Don’t start a sentence with but rule in a grammar book from a reputable publisher. My librarian friends would invariably report a run on grammar books for the next couple of days.

Despite frantic efforts to claim the money, no student ever succeeded, for a simple reason: That “rule” doesn’t exist. Even Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the ultimate authority on grammar, says there’s no such rule. (See for yourself: Click on the link to read page 191, where you’ll find a discussion about starting sentences with but.)

Good writers start sentences with but all the time. To prove my point, a few minutes ago I found this sentence at the New York Times website in the second paragraph of a news story: But Republicans still oppose many aspects of the bill, and a rough floor fight lies ahead.”

“Ah, yes,” you’re saying. “But that just proves how writing has deteriorated.”

I hear you.  You’re sure you won’t find sentences starting with but in the Gettysburg Address, or FDR’s Inaugural Address, or Shakespeare, or classic books like Pride and Prejudice and Little Women, or examples of fine prose like the King James Bible. Everybody knows that, right?

Wrong. Read on: I’ve assembled sentences starting with but from a variety of writers, old and new. For good measure, I included sentences from several authorities on good writing: Lynn Truss, Strunk and White, Theodore Bernstein, H. D. Fowler, and H. L. Mencken. (You might be interested to know that Princeton University did a study and found that professional writers start 10% of their sentences with “but” and “and.”)

But don’t take my  word for it. Go to your bookcase and leaf through a couple of your favorite books. Pull out today’s newspaper and scan the front page. Turn the pages of your favorite magazine. Go to www.Bartleby.com, which has full texts of many classic books, and check out what famous writers from the past have done.

Here’s what you’ll discover: Not only do professional writers start sentences with but - they do it often. You won’t have to search far for examples. Happy hunting! (To learn more about punctuating sentences with but, click here and read about Comma Rule 2.)

Examples of Sentences Starting with But:

Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynn Truss, p. 7:

“But best of all, I think, is the simple advice given by the style book of a national newspaper: that punctuation is ‘a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.'”

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling, p. 3:

“But on the edge of town, drills were driven out of his mind by something else.”

The Associated Press Stylebook (2007), p. 326:

“But use the comma if its omission would slow comprehension…”

Watch Your Language, Theodore Bernstein, p. 4:

“But when he is writing for the newspaper he must fit himself into the newspaper’s framework.”

Preface to Watch Your Language, Jacques Barzun:

“But I am not inviting the reader to witness a tender of compliments over what may seem like a mere byproduct of professional skill.”

The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, H.L.Mencken (1921):

“But its chief excuse is its human interest, for it prods deeply into national idiosyncrasies and ways of mind, and that sort of prodding is always entertaining.”

The Elements of Style, Strunk and White (1918 edition):

“But whether the interruption be slight or considerable, he must never omit one comma and leave the other.”

The King’s English, H.D. Fowler (1908 edition):

“But if, instead of his Saxon percentage’s being the natural and undesigned consequence of his brevity (and the rest), those other qualities have been attained by his consciously restricting himself to Saxon, his pains will have been worse than wasted; the taint of preciosity will be over all he has written.”

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, page 1:

“We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I’m afraid I don’t.” And Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.

Epistle Dedicatory to Man and Superman, Bernard Shaw, 1903, p. 2:

“But you must not expect me to adopt your inexplicable, fantastic, petulant, fastidious ways….”

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, p. 1:

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

FDR, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933:

“But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.”

The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln (1863):

“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.”

Hamlet, William Shakespeare, Ii:

Horatio: So have I heard and do in part believe it.
But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.

King James Bible, Luke 6:44 – 45 (Sermon on the Mount)

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Cashel Byron’s Profession, Bernard Shaw:

CASHEL. I go. The meanest lad on thy estate Would not betray me thus. But ’tis no matter.

P.S. I have sentences starting with but in all my books (I’ve published seven of them). Did you notice that I started a sentence with but in this blog? Here it is: But don’t take my word for it.

It’s good advice, incidentally. Start doing your own investigation of these hallowed (but non-existent) rules.

My husband once had an editor who thought because was a bad word. Whenever he used because in an article, she’d call him and insist that he take it out. It never occurred to her to check the dictionary or see whether real-world writers use the word because (which, of course, they all do regularly). Made her look foolish, didn’t it?

6 thoughts on “Can a Sentence Start with “But”?

  1. Dr.Naquib

    Jean: I am still not convinced as ‘but’ as a conjunction is not joining any main clause or subordinate clause, but begins sentences with it ! How can a conjunction act as an opener in isolation?

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    No language, including English, is a logical and scientific system. Languages are social communication systems that develop in all sorts of ways (some of them odd and illogical) to meet the needs of users. “But” (the word you’re asking about) isn’t always a grammatical conjunction. Sometimes it’s simply a transition word (and a highly useful one at that). I’ve written an article about the fallacy of believing that English is a logical system of rules: http://EzineArticles.com/?Does-the-English-Language-Really-Have-a-System-of-Rules?&id=6636427. Or just read today’s post.

    All great writers start languages with “and” (your second question). The best way to learn to write well is to read extensively and imitate what good writers do.

  3. Dr.Naquib

    If using ‘and’ and ‘but’ as openers is a matter of style, the debate ceases immediately, but if it is perceived as a subject of grammar, I have a reservation. Grammar is, to me, a system of rules and conventions. What do you think, Jean?

  4. ballroomdancer Post author

    I strongly disagree with the “system of rules” statement. Rules are useful only when they reflect what real-world writers and speakers do. Many of the “rules” in English date back to the mistaken belief that English should be like Latin. English is only remotely related to Latin–it’s a Germanic language.
    I DO agree that language is a system of conventions. Identify the group of people whose language habits you admire. Then do what they do. You’re finished!
    Toiling over parts of speech, sentence diagramming, and similar tasks is time taken away from the real business of writing: Learning how to showcase your ideas and how to make a strong connection with your readers. If you could watch a writer’s brain at work, you would almost never see a thought about things like “adverbial conjunctions” and “intransitive verbs.” What you WOULD see is a lot of thinking about effective sentence patterns and options for organizing and developing ideas.

  5. Dr.Naquib

    Consciously or subconsciously, the established writers tend to follow grammar rules not created by them but by grammarians like Otto Jespersen. Bacon, Dryden, Philip Sydney, Dr. Johnson, Addison, Jonathan Swift, Shaw, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold ( who was a headmaster), TS Eliot, Mark Twain, Emerson, –all were highly educated and therefore, were naturally familiar with grammar rules that guided them. Perhaps one of the members of this caravan articulated ( to paraphrase ) –disregarding grammar is like playing tennis without the net.

  6. Dr.Naquib

    Thanks for your blog on the passive construction.

    The exceptions that you raised show that the sentence did contain the subject and the verb. Then how could a confusion arise on its status as the active or the passive in form
    ?

Leave a Reply