A WORD, PLEASE:

Recently I got an e-mail from a reader who has a long-running dispute with his daughter. She says you can't start a sentence with “and.” He says he's going to do it anyway.

Despite a very widespread myth, there's nothing grammatically wrong with starting a sentence with “and.” And that's not just me talking.

“It is a rank superstition that this coordinating conjunction cannot properly begin a sentence,” advises Garner's Modern American Usage.

This book was written by Bryan Garner, who penned the grammar section of the “Chicago Manual of Style,” so it's no surprise that the “Chicago Manual,” which is the official style guide for most book publishers, agrees. “Fowler's Modern English Usage” and many other expert sources will tell you the same thing: “And” at the beginning of a sentence is perfectly grammatical.

I stumbled upon this myth-busting factoid back in college — long before I knew much else about grammar. Being at a rebellious age, I started putting “and” at the beginning of every sentence I could. It became an enduring habit.

But years later I found myself in a very different position. I had moved from the job of writer into that of editor. Suddenly I was lopping the “ands” off the beginnings of other writers' sentences at almost every opportunity.

Why the sudden change? Had someone rewritten the grammar rules? Had I discovered some greater truth that I had for years overlooked? Nope. It was just that, in my new position, I had new priorities. Suddenly I could see that, though there's nothing grammatically wrong with beginning a sentence with “and,” stylistically it could indeed be a problem.

In news writing, economy of words is king. For a straight news story, every word that could be chopped out probably should be chopped out.

There are several reasons for this, including the hurriedness of the typical newspaper reader and the always-high price of newsprint. But, regardless of the history, austere sentences are the reigning aesthetic in news writing. News readers have come to expect and respect a pared-down, unadorned style that gets straight to the point.

The more creative a written work, the less this aesthetic applies. So you're much more likely to see an “and” heading up a sentence in a feature article about an actor than in a news report about Iranian unrest.

But in working as an editor I learned that news writing style contains a lesson for all writing. When I lop off an “and” at the beginning of one of my own sentences, I often end up with better writing.

“Ands” at the beginning of sentences may happen because the writer mind set is very different from the reader mind set. When we write, many of us hear the words in our head — often in casual, conversational tones. This makes “and” at the beginning of sentences seem natural. But to reach the reader's ear, you must go through his eye. Starting a sentence with “and” means there's extra — perhaps unnecessary — ink on the page. The reader already knows that one sentence relates to the previous sentence. He doesn't usually need “and” to link them. On the contrary, “and” can slow him down.

Now I try to be more discriminating with my sentence-starting “ands.”

When I reread my writing, I question every one. If the passage works as well without the “and,” I take it out. The result is often cleaner, more efficient, more professional writing. Other times, the “ands” create a smooth transition to a new sentence. And that's when I leave them in.


?JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You're Right.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@ aol.com.

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