Last revised 8/6/1999
Dr. Ed Vavra's KISS Approach to Sentence Structure
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# 1: But Don't Begin a Sentence
with "But."

Madonna and Child 
with an Angel
after 1469
Sandro Botticelli

     This essay began as an "essay" in an original sense of the word -- that of a trial, attempt, or test to explore an idea. The idea is that old rule, Don't begin a sentence with "But." Not being a historian of the language -- or of its rules, I had no intention of exploring what the grammarians have had to say about this rule. It is my understanding that the rule arose in 18th century England, when grammars were being produced as prescriptions of the "right" way to talk and write. Apparently it was felt that, because "but" is a coordinating conjunction, it could not come at the beginning of a sentence where it would have nothing to coordinate. (Coordination between sentences was, apparently, beyond the ken of these grammarians.) Why "and" and "or" escaped this condemnation remains a mystery.

     Unfortunately, our school grammars are still based on many of these antiquated rules -- and many teachers continue to preach against poor old "but," the only word supposedly forever banished from the first spot in a sentence. Every semester, I still have four or five students who remember having the rule pounded into them, and I am even aware of teachers who still do the pounding. Although the rule has never been put to formal discussion, it is my belief that most members of the NCTE Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (ATEG) agree that there is nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with "But." I also remembered doing a study, a decade or so ago, of some professional texts. My memory said that many of the professionals began sentences with the word. 

     Since the question arose again in my classroom, I decided to collect here examples from professional writers of sentences that begin with it. Such examples are not easy to notice -- unless one is specifically looking for them. They cause no problems in reading, and thus the use of "but" is transparent, as good writing should be. I had expected to find a few examples, here and there, and to quote all such sentences that I found. But, as you will see, their number is overwhelming. I have therefore limited myself, in most cases, simply to citing the pages on which they appear. I have also decided to stop the distracting process of collecting examples. If the list below does not convince, readers can simply look in any newspaper or other published writing. Examples are very easy to find if one is looking for them.

     Clearly there is no justification for this rule. Any teacher who continues to impress it upon students should be required to explain why she or he is doing so while all the writers listed below, many of whom are proclaimed as excellent, ignore the rule.

Except for the college composition textbook
entries are arranged alphabetically by author.

Berlin, Isaiah. The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1996. I was in the middle of this one before I started noting "But" pages, but nevertheless, see pages: 126, 128, 132 (2), 133, 135, 136 (2), 137, 138, 139 (2), 140, 148, 150, 153, 155, 160, 164, 172 (2), 173, 174, 176, 178, 183, and 192. On several of these pages, "But" begins not just a sentence, but also a paragraph.

Commager, Henry Steele. The American Mind. New Haven, Yale University Press 1950, 1961. 439:
It was not wonderful, perhaps, that America should have achieved mere material success, for no other nation had been more bounteously endowed with natural resources or more fortunate in its inheritance of human. But there seemed no compelling reason why she should have achieved success in the realm of mind and spirit as well.
Commager is considered one of our greatest historians -- and one of the most readable.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask. NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959.

     I don't know if there is a rule in French against beginning a sentence with "But." (Probably not.) Trask's translation, however, does so on pages: 10 (twice), 12 (twice), 14, 16 (twice), 23, 28, 29 (twice), 30 (twice), 35, 41, 43 (twice), 51 (twice), 52, 55 (twice), 59, 61, 63 (twice), 65, 71, 72, 74, 76, 81, 82 (twice), 84, 85 (twice), 86, 87, 88, 90 (thrice), 92, 93, 94, 95, 103, 105, 106, 107, 108, 121 (twice), 127, 128, 130, 134, 135, 136, 137, 139 (twice), 146 (twice), 148, 152, 153 (twice), 154, 158, 162, 164 (thrice), 165 (twice), 166, 168, 169, 171, 173, 175, 177, 179, 180, 181, 183, 184, 188, 189, 192, 193, 194, 202, 203, 204 (twice), 207, 208, 209, 212, 222, 228, and 231 (twice).

Gould, Stephen J.

     Gould begins two sentences with "but" in the passage cited in the next essay. [The first example should appear in the top line of your screen; the second begins the following paragraph.] In rereading that essay, I noted that Louis Myers, a grammarian also uses "but" to begin a sentence. [Click here.]

Hawthorne, Nathaniel

     How many of the same teachers who tell their students not to begin a sentence with "but" also have their students read The Scarlet Letter? The following is from the second paragraph of Chapter One:

But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-hush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.

James, Henry

     From the first paragraph of Daisy Miller:

But at the "Trois Couronnes," it must be added, there are other features that are much at variance with these suggestions: neat German waiters, who look like secretaries of legation; Russian princesses sitting in the garden; little Polish boys walking about held by the hand, with their governors; a view of the sunny crest of the Dent du Midi and the picturesque towers of the Castle of Chillon.

Mencken, H. L.

     Having frequently read that H. L. Mencken was a famous essayist, I decided to see for myself by reading his Prejudices: A Selection (NY: Vintage Books, 1955). Some of Mencken's prejudices are outlandish, some of his predictions have proved wrong, but the book certainly challenges one to think. James T. Farrell, in his "Introduction" to the book, uses "But" to open sentences on pages xi, xii, xiii, xiv, xv, xvi (2), and xvii (2). In the 258 pages of essays, Mencken himself begins sentences with "But" on pages: 5, 7, 8 (2), 9 (2), 11 (2), 14, 15 (2), 16 (2), 20 (2), 22, 23 (2), 25, 26 (2), 27, 28, 30, 31, 35 (3), 36, 37, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 47 (2), 49, 51, 52, 53, 54, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60 (2), 61 (2), 63, 64, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 74, 75 (2), 76 (2), 78, 81, 83, 86 (2), 87, 91, 92, 93, 94, 99, 102, 104, 106, 108, 110, 111, 116, 118, 119, 120 (2), 121, 123, 124, 128, 129 (2), 131, 132, 133, 134 (2), 135 (2), 136, 137, 140, 141, 142, 143 (3), 144 (4), 149, 150 (2), 152, 155 (2), 156, 160, 162 (3), 164 (2), 166 (2), 167 (2), 168, 171, 173, 174, 175 (2), 176, 177, 179 (2), 181, 183, 186, 187, 191, 194 (2), 197, 198, 200, 201, 204, 205, 207, 209, 210 (2), 211, 212, 213, 214, 216, 218, 219 (2), 221, 222 (3), 224, 225, 226, 228, 229, 230, 231, 237 (2), 238, 239, 241, 243, 247, 248 (2), 250, 251 (2), 253, 254, 255, 256, and 257. 

More, Thomas
Perhaps this entry should be under Paul Turner, the translator of More's Utopia (Penguin, 1965), but in any case, Turner uses "But" to begin sentences in his introduction to the book on pages 8 (twice), 12 (thrice), and 13. In the translation itself, "But" as a sentence opener appears on pages 30, 32, 33, 34, 40 (thrice), 41, and 42. After page 42, I stopped keeping notes. 

Russell, Bertrand

     Robert E. Egner, the editor of Bertrand Russell's Best (Mentor, 1958) begins a sentence with "But" on page vi, and although I noted that he did it later in the book, I stopped counting his "errors." Russell himself begins sentences with "But" on pages 13, 14 (2), 15 (2), 19, 21, 23, 24, 32, 34 (2), 35, 36, 38, 39 (2), 48, 54, 60, 65, 66, 67, 69, 71 (2), 72, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79 (2), 81, 87, 88, 90 (2), 93 (2), 94, 95, 96, 97 (2), 98 (2), 99, 105, 108 (2), 110 (2), 111, 113, 114, 119, 121, and 122. (The book has 124 pages.)
     The most interesting occurrence appears on page 67, where Russell writes:

To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is an entirely modern conception, which hardly existed before the seventeenth century. Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths.
I leave it to my readers to determine the implications of this statement in regards to those teachers who drill students not to begin a sentence with "But."

Stevens, Wallace

     Marie Borroff's Wallace Stevens: A Collection of Critical Essays was on my reading list. Because I first noticed an opening "But" in the essay by Wallace Stevens, and because the book is about him, I list this entry here. Stevens, one of the top twentieth century American poets, begins at least three sentences with "But" in his "Three Academic Pieces: I":

But the mind begets in resemblance as the painter begets in representation; .... (27)

But poetry if it did nothing but satisfy a desire would not rise above the level of many lesser things. (27)

But the steps to this particular abstraction, the gradus ad Metaphoram in respect to the general sense in which poetry and metaphor are one, are, like the ascent to any of the abstractions that interest us importantly, an ascent through illusion which gathers round us more closely and thickly, as we might expect it to do, the more we penetrate it. (29)

Stevens' essay immediately follows Borroff's introduction, so, having noted Stevens' buts, I watched for others in the book. (Such watching is, once again, very distracting.) EVERY ESSAY INCLUDED IN THE BOOK HAS AT LEAST THREE SENTENCES THAT BEGIN WITH "BUT"! I guess the book should be banished from our libraries as a bad example to students? Quoting all of these sentences is beyond my intentions, so I will simply list the authors and the pages on which these evil sentences occur. (Perhaps some teachers will prefer to simply rip these pages from the book?) See the link, above, for the citation.
Marie Boroff: 7, 9,10, 13, 15 (2), 17 (20), 19, 21
Joseph N. Riddel: 31, 33, 34, 35, 37, 40
Hi Simons: 43, 48, 49, 51, 52
Sister M. Bernetta Quinn, O.S.F.: 58, 66, 67
C. Roland Wagner: 72, 73 (4 on one page), 74, 75 
Harold Bloom: 81, 82, 85, 86
Ralph J. Mills: 97, 100, 107, 108
Roy Harvey Pearce: 117, 120 (2), 125, 129, 130
Louis L. Martz: 139, 140 (2), 141, 143 (2), 146, 148 (2)
Morton Dauwen Zabel: 152, 154, 155, 156, 159
Northrop Frye: 163, 164, 166, 169, 170, 174

Clearly, the rule against beginning a sentence with "But" is invalid.

Trilling, Lionel

     Trilling's The Liberal Imagination (Doubleday Anchor, 1950) is number 56 on The Modern Library's Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the Century. In his essay on Wordsworth's "The Immortality Ode," Trilling uses "but" to open three sentences within the last two paragraphs:

But the tragic mode could not be Wordsworth's. (148)

But although Wordsworth did not realize the new kind of art which seems implied by his sense of new powers, yet his bold declaration that he had acquired a new way of feeling makes it impossible for us to go on saying that the Ode was his "conscious farewell to his art, a dirge sung over his departing powers. (148)

But we must be aware, in any attempt to make this explanation, that an account of why Wordsworth ceased to write great poetry must at the same time be an account of how he once did write great poetry. (149)

And he uses "but" to begin sentences at least three times in the following essay on "Art and Neurosis":
But in the early nineteenth century, with the development of a more elaborate psychology and a stricter and more literal view of mental and emotional normality, the statement was more strictly and literally intended. (155)

But this is not quite to say that the poet was the victim of actual mental aberration. (157)

But on the other hand it allows him to listen. (159)

With six examples within eleven pages, Trilling obviously did not consider beginning a sentence with "but" to be an error.

Williamsport Sun-Gazette, editorial page, Friday, July 30, 1999

     Munching on lunch and reading the paper while discussing the "But" problem with my wife (who was also drilled never to begin a sentence with one), I noted one in the paper's own editorial (written by David F. Troisi?). Deciding to check the three other editorials on the page, I found three in David S. Broder's "Bradly Waits, Listens to 'Inner Voice,'" and two in Aida Cerkez-Robinson's "Four Years After Bosnia Accord, Surviving on 'Life Support.'" Cal Thomas, however, was a good boy and didn't use any in his "TV People Kill Broadcast Journalism."

College Composition Textbook

     Although I do not use a textbook in my composition courses, every once in a while I read one to see what others are doing. As I prepared to read the following book, I wondered if students would find sentences that begin with "But" in it. I make no claim to having counted all the "Buts"; rather, I'm simply raising the question -- if so many of these published writers begin sentences with "But," by what right are teachers still telling students not to?

Strategies for Successful Writing: A Rhetoric, Research Guide, Reader, and Handbook by James A. Reinking, Andrew W. Hart, and Robert Von Der Osten.  4th edition, Prentice Hall, 1996.

In addition to beginning sentences with "But" themselves, the authors regularly quote other writers who also do so.  The names of these quoted writers are indicated in parentheses. "But" can be found at the beginning of sentences on pages:

4, 5 (J. Winston Porter), 11, 28, 59 (George Orwell), 62 (Malcolm X), 64, 73, 76 (twice - H.L. Mencken), 88, 97, 98 (twice - Dina Ingber), 114, 116, 130, 141, 143 (twice), 152, 158, 161, 162, 162 (Thomas Henry Huxley), 164, 166 (twice), 182 (Bruce Jay Friedman), 190, 199 (Carl Becker), 200 (Judith Coburn), 205, 207 (Helen Keller), 216, 220 (Lord Ritchie-Calder), 221 (Vine Deloria, Jr.), 221, 226, 229, 233, 234 (Bertrand Russell), 235, 237 (Martin Luther King), 240 (Lyndon Baines Johnson as quoted by Doris Kearns), 243, 255 (Stephen Crane -- See also 257 - twice, and 259 - twice), 265, 266, 269, 297 (twice), 320 (Margaret Mead), 321 (Loren Eiseley), 326, 364 (James L. Buckley), 366, and 372.

The "Reader" in this text consists of 43 essays, 33 of which (77%) include sentences that begin with "But." (Of course, writers who did not begin sentences with "But" in the essays included in this text may well have done so in other essays.) The writers, titles, and page references are:

Amy Gross, "The Appeal of the Androgynous Man," 391 (thrice).
James Alexander Thom, "The Perfect Picture" - none.
Philip Ross, "The Boy and the Bank Officer" - several in quoted speech, but I didn't count them.
Maya Angelou, "Momma's Encounter," 399 (twice), 400, 401 (thrice).
Lewis Sawaquat, "For My Indian Daughter," 403, 404.
John V. Young, "When the Full Moon Shines Its Magic over Monument Valley," - none.
Annie Dillard, "A Total Eclipse," 408.
K.M. Kostyal, "Living Well in Loudoun," 411 (twice), 414 (twice), plus some in quoted speech.
E.B. White, "Once More to the Lake," 417 (twice), 418, 419 (twice).
Kathy Roth, "How to Adopt a Stray," - none.
Alexander Petrunkevitch, "From The Spider and the Wasp," 426 (twice).
Beth Wald, "Let's Get Vertical!" 428 (twice).
Richard Selzer, "The Knife," 430, 432 (twice).
James Thurber, "Courtship Through the Ages," - none.
Martin Gottfried, "Rambos of the Road,"- none.
Bill Bryson, "Idiosyncrasies, Anyone?" 441 (thrice), 442 (thrice), 443.
Ellen Goodman, "The Company Man," 445.
Eric Berne, "Can People Be Judged by Their Appearance?" - none.
Kathleen Fury, "It's Only a Paper World," 451.
Stephen Perrine, "The Crystal Healer Will See You Now," 453 (thrice), 454, 455 (thrice), 456, 457 (twice), 458 (twice), 459 (twice), 460 (twice).
Lewis Thomas, "The Technology of Medicine," 462.
Bruce Catton, " Grant and Lee: A Study in Contrasts," 465, 466.
Suzanne Britt, "That Lean and Hungry Look," 469.
Neal Peirce, "Americans: Conservationists or Champion Land Hogs?" 471, 472 (four times).
Richard Rodriguez, "Private Language, Public Language," 473, 474 (thrice), 475 (thrice), 476 (four times).
Marjorie Waters, "Coming Home," 478, 479.
Barbara Ehrenreich, "Spudding Out," 480 (twice), 481 (five times), 482.
Carll Tucker, "Fear of Death," 483.
Brent Staples, "Black Men and Public Space," - none.
Alex Taylor III, "Why Women Managers Are Bailing Out," 488 (thrice), 489 (twice), 490 (twice), 492 (thrice).
Laurence Shames, "The Sweet Smell of Success Isn't All That Sweet," 495.
William Raspberry, "The Handicap of Definition," 496, 497.
Citicorp N.A., "The Bureaucrat," - none.
Nancy Gibbs, "When Is It Rape?" 501, 502 (thrice), 504 (twice), 505.
Edward I. Koch, "Death and Justice," 510, 511, 512, 513.
Anna Quindlen, "Execution," 514 (four times), 515 (twice).
Marilyn Gaye Piety, "Sexual Harassment Is a Serious Problem at Universities," 516, 517.
Gretchen Morgenson, "Sexual Harassment Is Overestimated," 521, 522 (twice), 523, 524 (four times).
Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream," 526 (twice), 527, 528.
William Raspberry, "A Journalist's View of Black Economics," 529 (twice), 530 (four times), 531 (twice), 532 (thrice), 533 (five times).
Tony Hillerman, "A Museum Etched in Stone," 536 (twice), 537, 538 (twice).
Perri Klass, "She's Your Basic L.O.L. in N.A.D.," - none.
Gloria Naylor, "The Uses of a Word," 543 (twice), 544 (twice).