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Rewriting the Zombies: “And” and “But”

Zombie hands holding a sign that says It's OK to start a sentence with and or but.

Zombie rules are grammar rules that follow you around like the undead. They’re not really grammar rules, though. Some are stylistic choices, while others are made-up nonsense to make English work more like Latin. In this series, you’ll learn why the rules don’t work and what rule you can follow instead.

Zombie Rule: Don’t Start a Sentence with a Coordinating Conjunction.

A coordinating conjunction is a word that joins two words, phrases, or clauses of the same grammatical status, as in lemon and lime. While there’s some disagreement about which words are true coordinating conjunctions, we all agree that and, but, nor, and or are, so let’s stick with those.

Why are we told not to start a sentence with and, but, nor, or or? It may be an example of, as Theodore Bernstein put it for the none rule in Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins, “laying down a rule rather than allowing leeway for uncertain individual judgments.”

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In elementary school, students are prone to writing run-on sentences connected with a conjunction:

And we went to the park, and then we went to the movies, and then we had ice cream!

Later, when students become more sophisticated users of conjunctions and better understand what a complete sentence is, their teachers neglect to undo the simplified rule meant as training wheels.

It is grammatical and natural to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction:

But once you see one, you’ll start to recognize them when they happen.

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It’s also permissible to write the occasional incomplete sentence for effect or rhythm.

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Rewriting the Zombie

It’s OK to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction like and or but.

A version of this article originally published on July 16, 2013, on Visual Thesaurus.


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