Usage and Grammar

Q. Please help resolve a debate: Is it proper (or good) academic form to begin a sentence with a conjunction: “And I believe that is true.” “But editors differ on this rule.” “Nor is this uncommon.” I say it is improper in academic writing that is heading for publication, while others with journalism training say that it is correct. We are editors for an academic law review.

A. CMOS includes Bryan Garner’s opinion that there is “no historical or grammatical foundation” for considering sentences that begin with a conjunction such as and, but, or so to be in error (see paragraph 5.206). Fowler’s agrees (3rd ed., s.v. “and”), citing examples in the OED that date back to the ninth century and include Shakespeare. The conjunctions or and nor can be added to the list. None of this means that it is not possible to abuse the privilege. Sentences should begin with a conjunction only when the result is perfectly clear and more effective than some other alternative. What about academic writing, then? Good academic writing is of course difficult to produce, and there is no guarantee that allowing sentence-starting conjunctions improves matters. But the alternative—enforcing a baseless restriction—probably doesn’t help.