Grammar tip: Why it’s smart to start a sentence with a conjunction

Inez Romanos | May 23, 2018

Oxford Dictionaries has debunked a myth. In her post, Can you start a sentence with a conjunction?, guest blogger Catherine Soanes answered her question with a resounding ‘yes!’.

Your high school English teacher probably told you never to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction like ‘and’ or ‘but’. They may have said it was sloppy or lazy or just bad grammar.

But it’s actually just fine — and it can make your writing easier to read.

What’s a conjunction? Think ‘FANBOYS’

Conjunctions are parts of speech that join words, phrases, or clauses together in a sentence. A special category of conjunction is a coordinating conjunction:

An easy way to remember them is the acronym FANBOYS.

Photo of American football fans.

This isn’t what we meant by FANBOYS. Photo by Brent Cox on Unsplash.

Too many conjunctions in one sentence can be tricky to read

Technically speaking, the purpose of a coordinating conjunction is to join two independent clauses. Each clause is a separate idea, and could stand alone as a sentence.

As a writer, you can string together several clauses into a long sentence. The conjunctions show how the clauses — the ideas — relate to each other.

But we know that complex sentences are more difficult to read. As an English speaker, you only resolve the meaning of a sentence when you reach the full stop at the end. Meanwhile, you have to hold the meaning of each clause in your head, and remember how the ideas relate to each other. If you lose track, you have to re-read the sentence, labouring to make its meaning sink in.

You’ll limit your sentences to one idea each

How to prevent confusion? Put a full stop before a conjunction. Ta-dah! Your sentences are one idea each, and your related ideas are easier to grasp.

Pick your spot; don’t overdo it, and remember that short sentences lend emphasis.

Here’s an example. Instead of this:

The concept that he suggested was complex in several respects and novel to many of the audience, yet he described it convincingly in spite of his limited English, and won them around to his revolutionary idea. (36 words)

You could write this:

The concept that he suggested was complex in several respects and novel to many of the audience. Yet he described it convincingly in spite of his limited English. And he won them around to his revolutionary idea. (17 + 11 + 9 words)

Your sentences will, naturally, be shorter

Readers find information easier to absorb if it’s delivered in short sentences. The recommended average sentence length is:

Remember, it’s an average, not a target or a limit! And don’t make all your sentences the same length. Vary sentence length to create an appealing pace.

Photo of a chrome electric table fan.

No, not that kind of fan either! Photo by Pixabay, licence CC0 1.0.

Short sentences deliver smart writing

Business writers often worry about how they’ll look if they write in brief, simple sentences and ‘break rules’ like the convention about starting with conjunctions. They say, ‘It’s a complex topic, and my readers will expect complex writing. If I make it simple, they will think I’m unsophisticated, unprofessional, and I’m dumbing down.’

A researcher at Princeton University, psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer, has debunked that idea. He gave a group of readers two documents on the same topic: one whose writer used short sentences and plain words; and the other whose writer had used long complex sentences and words.

He asked the readers, which writer was more intelligent? And the readers replied that they thought the writer of the simple document was the smarter.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.