Column: It’s not true that good sentences can’t start with ‘he,’ ‘she’ or ‘they’
“Good sentences don’t start with He/She/They.”
That’s a lesson that, according to a Twitter post, a teacher recently passed on to a child.
In context, the lesson seems a little less atrocious: The teacher was talking about the first sentence in a child’s answer to an essay question, meaning the child’s own writing hadn’t yet named an antecedent for the pronoun. In that case, maybe it’s a good idea to teach kids to use a full noun, like Joe, before you start referring to that noun with a pronoun, like “he.”
But that’s not what the teacher said, so the lesson a child would walk away with, carrying it with him for his lifetime, is that it’s bad to start a sentence with one of those pronouns.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that’s ridiculous. But to illustrate, I thought I’d take a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel off my bookshelf and see how well it lives up to this teacher’s high standards. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” which won the prize for fiction, has on its first page a sentence starting with “he.” On page two, four sentences start with “he.” On page three, seven sentences start with “he.” Another Pulitzer winner, Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys,” has its first sentence-commencing “he” on page one of chapter one, with lots more on subsequent pages.
So, no. It’s not true that good sentences can’t start with “he,” “she” or “they.”
This isn’t the only grammar prohibition asserting you can’t start a sentence with a certain word or type of word. Every one I’ve heard so far is bunk. But if you look closely, some may be rooted in wise observations taken to unwise extremes.
For example, a lot of people have heard that you can’t start a sentence with “because.” The argument is that, because “because” links two thoughts together, a sentence that starts with “because” must be just half a sentence — a fragment.
To get more technical about it: “Because” is a subordinating conjunction, which can turn an independent clause like “Joe got the job” into a dependent clause like “Because Joe got the job.” Unlike independent clauses, dependent ones can’t stand alone as sentences. So you can see where the idea came from. But it’s just not true. “Because Joe got the job, he needs to hire a dog walker” is a complete and grammatical sentence that starts with “because.”
Others say you can’t start a sentence with “and.” And again, there’s a kernel of wisdom in here. Good writing usually aims to omit needless words. Almost any sentence that starts with “and” loses nothing if you take the “and” out. As a writer, I start lots of sentences with “and.” As an editor, however, I tend to chop those “ands” out. That’s not because special rules apply to me. It’s just easier to stay vigilant while wearing the editor hat.
Usually, folks who condemn “and” at the head of a sentence don’t just think it’s inefficient. They think it’s ungrammatical. Not true. There’s no grammar rule that says you can’t start a sentence with “and.”
Others stretch this idea further, saying it’s wrong to start a sentence with any conjunction, including “so” and “but.” Again, the idea here is that these words indicate a continuation of a thought that started in a previous sentence. But there’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s no rule against it.
I’ve even heard people say you can’t start a sentence with “it.” Imagine how this rule would cripple your writing if it were true. You couldn’t say “It is true” or “It is Tuesday” or “It was a dark and stormy night.”
I suspect this one started with the idea that “It” is sometimes used to delay the main clause of a sentence, making the sentence wordier: “It is true that Jen is here” is a wordy way of saying “Jen is here.” But that doesn’t mean it’s ungrammatical. If anyone tells you that this or that word can’t begin a sentence, be skeptical.
The writer is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.
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