Can You Start A Sentence With But?

Can you start a sentence with but? English teachers love to tell us it's against the rules. But there is nothing wrong with starting a sentence with but.

As you grow as a writer, you learn that a lot of the rules that you were taught in school aren't really rules at all. Can you start a sentence with but? Your third-grade teacher probably told you this was absolutely verboten.

However, this is an example of a common rule that is misleading. There is nothing wrong with starting a sentence with but or any other coordinating conjunction.

In fact, authorities as lofty as The Elements of Style, The Chicago Style Manual, and William Shakespeare all begin sentences with the word “but.” In the case of the former two examples, they also overtly say that it is permissible. 

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Why It Is OK to Start a Sentence with But?

Can you start a sentence with but?

“But” is conjunction. According to sources including Merriam-Webster, conjunction is used to join words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. Because of this, it is perfectly proper to use “but” to begin a sentence that continues an idea expressed in the previous one.

What Are Coordinating Conjunctions?

We use coordinating conjunctions to connect words and phrases together. The seven coordinating conjunctions in the English language are:

  • And
  • But
  • For
  • Nor
  • Or
  • So
  • Yet

It is perfectly allowable to start a sentence with any of these, as long as you are connecting two independent clauses.

What Are Independent Clauses?

An independent clause is one that forms a complete sentence on its own. Examples of independent clauses that are joined by coordinating conjunctions include:

  • I got to the station early. But I still missed my train.
  • She won't eat at Italian restaurants. Nor will she try sushi.
  • We could go to Paris. Or we could take a flight to Madrid.

How Do You Avoid Sentence Fragments?

As long as the sentence you started with “but” includes both a noun and a verb, the chances that you've created a fragment are very low. A sentence fragment lacks one or the other (usually the verb). As long as the first phrase ends in a full stop and the second phrase uses “but” in a logical way, you can't go wrong.

Examples include:

  • I got the promotion. But I still won't make as much as I need.
  • He arrived with seven bags of groceries. But he still forgot the bread.

There are few logical statements in sentences of those forms that would take the form of fragments. If you were to write “He arrived with seven bags of groceries. But the bread.” the reader would be excused for wondering “but the bread what?”

Can But Go at the Beginning of a Sentence in Good Writing?

Yes, absolutely. Good writing, in fact, is made up of sentences that vary in length and word use. Bad writing often suffers from an excess of uniformity rather than a sprinkling of grammar that, although correct, would not be accepted in a beginning language class. 

Is It OK in Business Writing?

Can you start a sentence with but in business writing?
In actual practice, when using but at the start of a sentence, the choice comes down to the setting and the tone

It's accepted that business writing is more formal than some other forms. Because of this, there is a reluctance to use grammar that might be seen as overly casual.

However, in actual practice, the choice comes down to the setting and the tone. If other people in your company seem to hew to more stiff and formal language, it might be good to do so, as well. But if they tend to write with less formality, you are free to do so, too.

Where Did the Rule Against Starting a Sentence with But Come From?

According to linguist David Crystal, the rule started with schoolteachers in the 19th century. Many noticed young students habitually starting sentences with conjunctions and attempted to stop this in the interest of creating themes and essays with standalone, independent thoughts and clauses.

But instead of encouraging students to limit the use of these sentence starters, over time, they fell into a habit of banning the words altogether. Because of this, generations of children were taught never to start a sentence with conjunction when no such English grammar rule exists.

The Final Word on Can You Start a Sentence with But

Yes, you absolutely can start a sentence with but. But you need to make sure that the following sentence is not a fragment. 

When it comes to using it in a business setting, that is a question of style rather than grammar. Follow the lead of the people in your office and your industry. And if there's a style guide, that's even better.

FAQ About Starting a Sentence with But

When can you start a sentence with but?

Any time you are joining a sentence with the one that proceeds it.

Are there times it's wrong to start a sentence with but?

It's wrong if your sentence is not a complete sentence. If it is a dependent clause, you should use a piece of punctuation other than a period.

Is it OK to use but at the start of a sentence according to AP Style or Chicago Manual of Style?

Both allow you to use but at the beginning of a sentence.

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