For some people, starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ is the equivalent of wearing your bathrobe to a work Zoom: lazy, unprofessional or just plain wrong. No matter how long writers have been banging on about it being fine, some readers will not let it go. As part of a team of behavioural science nerds and writers, perhaps I can use a bit of psychology to finally persuade you that not only is it okay – it’s often a hallmark of decent writing.
We hear what we read
Writing only exists to be read – and most of us hear voices when we read. In fact, reading aloud is the best litmus test for how natural your writing is: if you stumble over saying it, your reader will stumble over reading it. Using ‘and’ and ‘but’ to start sentences sounds perfectly normal when you talk; it’s no coincidence that very good writing often sounds like speech. So don’t bend language to breaking point just to avoid a forbidden word.
Writing naturally is also good psychology. Behavioural scientists talk about ‘removing friction’ when you want to nudge people. In other words, when you write in a way that doesn’t make your reader work for it, they’re more likely to do what you want.
If your primary school teacher said it was a rule, they were wrong
Language has no rules. We do have a quite helpful set of descriptions about how we use it: grammar. But anyone calling themselves a ‘grammar pedant’ has fundamentally misunderstood grammar; it can’t be policed, because it’s not the law.
At school, your teacher wanted you to learn not to start every sentence with ‘and then we’. To master all your language tools. To understand how some repetition gets old really fast. And to make things interesting for your reader – a reader who needed evidence you knew some
big other words.
Look at my last paragraph. What does the ‘and’ do there? It signals your brain that all these points are individual yet connected. It also changes the pitch of the voice in your head. If I had started the sentence from ‘it’, that paragraph would feel unfinished: like a list, rather than a whole, completed thought. By starting one sentence differently from the others, I might even have made it a touch more memorable - that’s the Von Restorff effect for you.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. As humans, we love getting permission from an authority, and it doesn’t get much higher than the world’s bestselling book of all time. The Bible starts many, many sentences with ‘and’; if it’s good enough for 2.4 billion Christians, it’s probably okay for your customers too.
There’s no point sounding ‘professional’ if you’ve lost your audience
Often, the same people who don’t like ‘but’ are fine with ‘however’, or use ‘in addition’ instead of ‘and’ – even though they mean the same things. If you’re replacing an everyday word with its fancier first cousin, you might be doing it to sound professional. If so, not only are you heading in the wrong direction, but you’re losing readers as you go.
Here’s an example: whether you’re a fan or not of the UK government, you’d be hard pushed to find more inclusive and professional writing than on the central government website, GOV.UK – complete with conjunctions at the start of sentences. In their words (emphasis mine):
“There is no guarantee that only your intended audience will find your content, or that everyone will understand what you mean.
But we can make sure we get as close to accessible for everyone as we possibly can, simply by being very, very clear.”
Writing inclusively is both the sensible thing to do and the right thing to do. The more people do it, the more comfortable we’ll all become (yep, there’s science behind that, too). Of course, feeling comfortable with ‘and’ and ‘but’ isn’t enough if all the rest of your writing is complex and wordy. But it’s a good start.
If you’re still not convinced, maybe don’t sign up to our newsletter below.
Though we only send out our thoughts once a month or so, we can be trigger-happy with our conjunctions. Sometimes we might even split infinitives. If you think you can get past that, we’d love to tell you what we know about nudgy writing, shaping – and using – your brand’s tone of voice, or using science to get training to stick. But we’ll understand if you’d rather not.