It’s a question I often heard when I was teaching: Can a sentence start with but?
The answer is simple: Yes. Of course.
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 the Declaration of Independence, 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 eleven 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?
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I’m so pleased you liked this post – thanks for the feedback! Jean
It is a good effort for trying to bring up the different examples of old & new… Thank you, really. Yet, convincing the editors to this argument will still take more of an effort..
Hi, Seda! I can assure you that all professional editors already know that it’s ok to start sentences with “but”! If you check newspapers, magazines, and books, you’ll see that they all start sentences with “but.”
I’m glad the post was helpful!
It’s the same issue with the word because.
Right. I don’t know where people come up with these bizarre rules! If you read anything that’s been professionally published, you’ll see tons of sentences starting with “because” and “but.”
That a writer in the past starts a sentence with “but” means it is okay? SERIOUSLY? Sorry, not a convincing argument…I don’t care WHO the author is…
I’m on the editorial board for The Journal of Shaw Studies, a scholarly journal published by Penn State. Hundreds of scholars write for us – and they all start sentences with “but.” If you went to work for them (or for any prestigious publisher), would you start “fixing” all the sentences starting with “but”? I don’t think you’d last long. If you’re thinking nostalgically about the good old days when publishers didn’t put up with sentences starting with “but,” I have a challenge for you. Go to your bookcase and start pulling out your favorite books. Go to Bartleby.com, which has put full texts of classic books on the internet. Then head for your library. Be thorough and persistent. Which books don’t have sentences starting with “but”? (I can save you some time: I’ve checked Dickens, Thackeray, Thomas Jefferson, E.B. White, Austen, Thoreau, Roosevelt, Lynn Truss, Henry Fowler, the grammar book I used in high school, and many more: They all start sentences with “but.”) You can also try an experiment that many of my students have done: Look for a grammar book with the “Don’t start a sentence with ‘but” rule. There’s no such book. But don’t take my word for it! Let me know what you find.
Jean, where do you stand on the use of the word “got”?
Slightly off topic to this particular thread I know. But I was always pulled up for it in school — 30 years ago or so…ahem — probably by the same teacher who said I couldn’t start a sentence with “but”. I’m not sure what other word I could have used.
Anyway, I’ve had the last laugh as I just broke the “rule” in the sentence above!
Great site btw!!
I’m glad you’re enjoying the website, Frank! It’s always fun to hear from visitors. Funny how we all got the same misinformation about starting a sentence with but!
I use got frequently – I used it in the previous sentence. But (ha!) I try to avoid it in formal writing. It always sounds a little folksy to me. Thanks for the comment! Jean
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Thanks for sending this!
“But don’t take my word for it!” Lol. Thank you Jean! 🙂
Hi, Shirley – most people don’t catch that joke! Thanks! You made my day.
The problem with ‘because’ as a sentence starter is not that it is not grammatically sound. The problem is the author is trying to link a fact with a reason for that fact, and usually that is not necessary.
That is also not against the rules, but it is normally better to not link them. Put your fact in the first sentence, and put your reason in the following sentence. The reader will make the connection. That is how a reader enjoys reading, is by using their own mind actively to parse the text. ‘Because’ only makes something very easy a tiny bit easier. And trying to help readers understand what they already can understand quite easily is actually condescending.
IOW, using ‘because’ indiscriminately like that is ‘telling’. When the reader makes the connection themselves, that is much more like ‘showing’. It’s allowing them to see the connection for themselves and not pointing out what is obvious to them.
This can also be extrapolated to ‘but’ and ‘and’. ‘And’ is fairly benign as a sentence beginner, and it also connects ideas, but it should be used when there is not an obvious connection. ‘But’ is a bit less benign, though it is fine to use when it feels right. ‘But’ is a cue to the reader that a following idea might be counter to what was just said. Do they need help figuring that out? Hardly, which makes it superfluous.
‘But’ is also like a little speed bump to a poetic flow.
The point here is that often, neither ‘but’ nor ‘and’ is really necessary. Quite often, if the ‘but’ or ‘and’ is left out, or removed, the prose is actually much stronger. Again, just put the consecutive thoughts there and let the reader make the easy connection. Take off those training wheels—the reader neither needs nor wants them. If you instead always make the connections for them, then they are reading passively, simply absorbing facts. That is not a fun way to read, unless you are trying to put the reader to sleep.
Hi, Tom –
This is how I always introduce but:
Pretend it’s Friday afternoon. You haven’t seen your friend Dave in a couple of weeks. You want to get out this evening and do something that would be fun and active.
You call Dave and say, “I’d like to go bowling tonight. Can you be at Cypress Lanes at 7:30?”
He says, “I’d love to,Tom. It’s been ages since we got together. But….” and his phone goes dead. He forgot to charge it.
Your brain instantly fills in the rest of the sentence. He’s not going bowling tonight.
Starting a sentence with but is a powerful communication tool. It’s a very efficient way to convey a message – your listener knows what’s coming.
Our brains are wired to pick up small clues and expand them. I always told my students to use the language capabilities already present in our brains. Front-load your sentences! Put markers at the beginning to tell your readers what’s coming. It makes for greater clarity and understanding.
I’ve had people protest that maybe Dave was going to say “But I can’t be there until 8:00.” Sure! That’s why you’re supposed to keep the battery charged on your phone. You want to hear the rest of the message.
I would still argue that better than 85% of the time, when a sentence starts with but, your brain accurately predicts the rest of the sentence. The same is true of because.
My husband is a newspaper columnist. He once had an editor who somehow got the idea that because was a bad word. Anytime he used it in a column – anywhere in a sentence – she’d call him and tell him to revise the sentence without it. Silly woman.
These directional words (because, although, if, nevertheless, however) are enormously useful.
I start many paragraphs with because and but.
All of my academic articles are posted on Academia.edu.I’d welcome your honest feedback! Here’s a link to an article about My Fair Lady. Would it read better if I didn’t start sentences and paragraphs with but? Do you feel confused when you see a signpost that an idea shift is coming? https://www.academia.edu/39627818/Can_a_Shavian_Love_My_Fair_Lady