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Conjunctionitis

September 26, 2011

‘And now for something completely different.’

Thank you, Monty Python, for the gift of this sentence, perfectly illustrating how we can start a sentence with a conjunction. For many this is an affront as it breaks a treasured rule of grammar: never start sentences with an ‘and’.

However, the only thing we cannot start a sentence with is a numeral. Yet we do this far more often.  ‘2011 saw the beginning of a new phase in our organisation’s development.’  Years cannot ‘see’ (not having eyes). It is better to avoid this by using such expressions as ‘January of 2011 marked the start of…’  This is also more precise since a year is twelve months.  We can write ‘Ten years later…’, but not ’10 years later…’

I recently checked the Times Educational Supplement for the prevalence of sentences and paragraphs starting with a conjunction, and found that nearly ten per cent began in this way. And these are established and respected journals. It is so common that it is unremarkable. We do not notice these conjunctions because they work in context and, as ever, good writing is transparent. And so we dispense with another myth.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2011 08:54

    May I put in a word for the humble and much abused little conjunction ‘but’? I meet many people who have the idea that it is a negative word and that they should avoid it. Not at all! It can have a negative sense if you use it in a sentence like ‘You spoke well at the conference but the acoustics were so bad that we couldn’t hear you at the back.’ But the job of ‘but’ is simply to indicate that the second part of the sentence (or indeed the next sentence) contradicts the first in some way. It is not negative here: ‘We failed to meet our target this year, but you worked so hard that we have decided to give you a bonus.’ Jane

    • October 5, 2011 08:08

      I entirely agree with you on ‘but’. Its negative use is only one of many; so often it is positive. As you suggest, I think this misconception stems from its use for contrast or qualification, where a positive is followed by a qualifying negative. ‘This is the right way, but it takes longer to get there.’ We talk of ‘waiting for the “but”‘, or ‘there’s always a “but”‘, implying it is solely negative. Yet (or, ‘but’) reverse the order of the sentence and we have something very different: ‘It takes longer to get there, but this is the right way.’ Now it is positive and assertive.

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