Blog/Grammar tips
11 February 2023
8 min read

Can you start a sentence with "but"?

But have you ever thought about how powerful a single word can be? Starting a sentence with 'but' can be a powerful way to make a point or emphasize an idea. Whether it's in an argument, a speech, an essay, or even a casual conversation, using the word 'but' to begin a sentence can have an impactful effect when used correctly. 

"But" is a powerful and versatile conjunction that can combine or contrast ideas or add complexity and nuance to the statement that follows. It creates a link between two independent clauses using a comma, and you can start a sentence with it after a period.

Can you start a sentence with "but"?

We'll explore the ins and outs of starting a sentence with "but," whether it's appropriate for both formal and informal writing, and how it can be used in written communication.

Can you start a sentence with "but"?

There are seven coordinating conjunctions, and "but" is one of them. These conjunctions can bridge two independent clauses by using a comma. For example:

  • My parents wanted a family vacation in Finland, but I planned to visit Canada.
  • My mobile is 7 years old, but it's still running smoothly.

Therefore, lots of people consider it grammatically incorrect to start a sentence with "but." However, many reputed institutions, including the University of Texas at Austin, have determined that there's no hard and fast grammatical rule against starting a sentence with this conjunction. 

If a sentence has a thematic tie to the following sentence, you can start the new one with "but." Of course, there are some rules you need to follow to avoid fragments.

"But" at the beginning of a sentence is a popular way to emphasize two contrasting ideas or things. So, expert SEO writers often use this sentence-connecting method in blog posts, journals, and other marketing content. 

For example:

  • Eli is a successful businessman. But no one likes him because of his attitude and arrogance.
  • My friends threw a party last night. But I preferred going to a movie instead. 

But you should avoid using the word "but" and other conjunctions to begin a sentence in academic and formal writing. Why is that so? 

Formal writings warrant using more conventional grammatical rules and word choices. Starting a sentence with "but" sounds more impromptu, suitable for informal settings.

For example:

  • I wanted to go to the beach this weekend. But the weather forecast said it was going to rain. (Informal)
  • I wanted to go to the beach this weekend, but the weather forecast said it was going to rain. (Formal)
  • I wanted to go to the beach this weekend. However, the weather forecast said it was going to rain. (Formal)

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Beginning a sentence with "but": The origin of the rule

In his book "The Story Of English In 100 Words," linguist David Crystal mentioned that school teachers in the 19th century started this rule. At that time, many young students used to start sentences with conjunctions instead of using alternative phrases.

For this reason, high school English teachers started to teach young learners not to start sentences with "but" instead of teaching the actual use of coordinating conjunctions.

Consequently, this misconception became an English grammar rule for learners. Some teachers and English language speakers still believe the myth to be true. 

Why did the teachers teach this usage as incorrect even if it was not? Well, young people don't have in-depth command over the language. So, they often fail to understand the tone and style of sentences and their meanings in the context of the whole text.

While using "but" to start a sentence is correct, it's often done for some specific purposes. Doing it in the wrong context will create incoherence and sentence fragments. 

We frequently use conjunctions to begin sentences when speaking. However, the language of verbal communication will feel strange in the written form. 

The following example will help you understand why teachers implemented this rule:

  • Andrew invited us to his home for his birthday. But he changed his mind and wanted to give us an ice cream treat in the new shop. But when we went to the ice cream parlor, he realized he didn’t bring his wallet. But we didn't stop there; we had fun together at the park.
  • There was a king. But he wasn’t as strong and brave as other kings. But he wasn't a coward either. So, he led his army when the time came. 
  • Cinderella was poor. But she was kind and beautiful. But her stepmother and stepsister were mean to her. But she still tried her best to make them happy.

Can you spot the incoherence in these examples? Starting sentences with the same word repeatedly ruins the rhythm of the writing. So, it was taught at the institutional level not to join independent clauses with conjunction after a period.

Is it grammatically correct to start a sentence with but?

Yes, it's grammatically correct to use "but" at the beginning of a sentence. You can do it to start the first sentence of a paragraph or at the beginning of a new sentence to establish its connection to the previous one. No compulsory grammar rule states that starting a sentence with a conjunction is incorrect.

However, you should refrain from doing this in academic writing and business correspondence.

Compare the following two sentences:

  • The management team was supposed to deliver the product today. But we have canceled all delivery schedules due to bad weather. (Informal)
  • The management team was supposed to deliver the product today. However, we have canceled all delivery schedules due to bad weather. (Formal)

Only professional content writers understand how to use this rule in various contexts without distorting the tone and meanings. Maintaining the right style is critical for informal content, including blogs, social media, and eCommerce posts, to connect emotionally with the audience. 

For example:

  • No wonder a sulfate shampoo can deeply clean your scalp. But sulfate will dry your scalp and cause flaking and hair loss. Our product will give you all benefits without damaging effects. 

When should you start a sentence with "but"?

The tone and audience of your writing play a significant role in determining when you should consider starting a sentence with "but." Professor Jack Lynch from Rutgers University said in his book "Selected Grammar and Style Notes":

"Contrary to what your high school English teacher told you, there's no reason not to begin a sentence with but or and; in fact, these words often make a sentence more forceful and graceful."

According to Professor Lynch, if you want to make your sentence create an impact, you can use a conjunction to start sentences. But we always don't want to make our sentences sound forceful, right?

Here are some other occasions when starting sentences with "but" is perfectly acceptable:

Emphasis

When used at the beginning of a sentence, "but" can emphasize a contrast or introduce a different point of view. It indicates that the speaker strongly emphasizes the second part of the sentence, signaling a change in direction or opinion. It also adds drama to your sentences which a conjunctive adverb can't do. 

Here are some examples:

  • I appreciate everyone's input, but there must be a better way. (Emphasizes the speaker's conviction that there is a better alternative to the mentioned course of action.)
  • But I don't think that's the right choice. (Emphasizes that the speaker disagrees with a previously expressed idea.)

Tone

Using a coordinating conjunction, you can add a specific tone to your writing, like frustration, agony, anger, contrast, etc. It creates a sense of anticipation and emphasizes the difference between the two ideas. However, this is a subjective stylistic choice to effectively bring one's emotion into writing. For example:

  • My math teacher is not happy with my progress. But I'm already trying my best. (Frustration or Anger)
  • I have a pending assignment to do. But I wanted to go to the beach. (Contrast)

Run-on sentence

When you want to gather many ideas into one sentence, it creates a lengthy sentence containing many independent clauses. You can use "but" to break the sentence and make it easier for readers to understand. For example:

  • A Roomba makes cleaning floors easy as it's portable and needs little supervision but it's more expensive than other similar vacuums. (Run-on sentence)
  • A Roomba makes cleaning floors easy as it's portable and requires little supervision. But it's more expensive than other similar vacuums.

How to avoid sentence fragments with "but" at the beginning?

Sentence fragments happen when a verb or a noun is absent in the sentence. They are commonly used in informal language and are often seen in fiction or poetry. While they are usually not considered "proper" grammar, they are acceptable in specific contexts.

Subordinating conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence can also create fragments. However, you can avoid it by adding a verb or noun to the sentence.

For example:

  • I've missed the last two interviews for illness. But still hopeful of getting a job. (Incorrect)
  • I've missed the last two interviews for illness. But I'm still hopeful of getting a job. (Correct)

In the first example, the last clause doesn't have a verb. Therefore, the incorrect sentence creates a fragment, and the correct one does not. In addition, adding the verb in the last example also makes it logical. If you find it tricky to spot fragments, you can take help from a style editor.

Can you start a sentence with "but" in literary writing?

Yes, you can start a sentence with "but" in literary writing. There are many instances from the greatest writers using "but" to start a sentence in fiction and non-fiction writings.  

For example: 

"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 American Language, H.L. Mencken (1921)

"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."__Hamlet, William Shakespeare, Ii

"But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground."__The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln (1863)

Can you start a sentence with "but" in business writing?

When writing a formal letter or business correspondence, be careful of the qualms about using "but" to begin a sentence. It's because starting a sentence with conjunctions is considered an informal style. 

You should use alternative phrases in these cases. However, doing so can change the writing's tone slightly.

For example:

  • Good news! After much negotiation, the ABC company finally permitted us to shift our shop there. But it'll take around three days to complete the moving process. (Informal)
  • Good news! After much negotiation, the ABC company finally permitted us to shift our shop there. However, it'll take around three days to complete the moving process. (Formal)

Do you understand the difference between the tone of these two examples? Depending on your brand voice, you can still use "but" at the beginning as a stylistic choice.

Alternative phrases to start a sentence except "but"

There are some common alternative phrases that you can use in informal and formal language. For example:

  • Furthermore
  • However
  • Moreover
  • Therefore
  • Additionally
  • In contrast

Here are some examples of sentences starting with alternative phrases:

Conclusion

So, the answer to the question, "can you start a sentence with but" is yes. It's not grammatically incorrect, but the rule was imposed to prevent young learners from mixing up formal and informal writing. However, many people still hesitate to use it, thinking it's incorrect. 

Are you still unsure about sentence structure and rules? Check out Strategically's grammar tips and tricks to help you write confidently.

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