Joko MacKenna


Why it's not OK for EFL students to start sentences with conjunctions

When I was in primary school, we learned English grammar. Seems like I'm in the minority in that regard when it comes to the schooling of most my colleagues.

I was a kid in the USA in the 1970's. From what I've heard anecdotaly, any American younger than I didn't get taught grammar in English class as an elementary school student.

My UK co-workers have told me the same thing, i.e., their English classes were about esoteric things like recognizing meaning in writings, English lit history and the likes. There weren't any polemics and rules taught after about 1978.

You don't end a sentence in a preposition. Yeah, this was one of the rules I was taught as a kid, but even then, it was taught half-heartedly. English is always changing. Controversial sentence structures become acceptable which had once been proscribed. Nowadays, it's perfectly acceptable to end your sentence a preposition with.

Another rule I learned as a kid was: you should never start a sentence with a conjunction.

And, but, or and so were forbidden as the first word of a sentence when I was 7 years old. That was almost 40 years ago now, and any reading of media today is chock full of sentences starting with those forbidden words.

Used judiciously by wordsmiths of high caliber, these little words add a stylistic brevity to prose. Why write however when you can just write but? So, the rule against conjunctions starting sentences has fallen by the wayside when it comes to 21st Century professional writing.

Should we use the standards we hold our best writers to when marking the writings of our non-NES students?

When I'm marking the writing of an adult ESL student, who writes about as well as I did when I was 7 years old, and they begin a sentence with a preposition, I can't help but remember what I was taught as a kid about English: Don't Start a Sentence With And, But or So!

Many people who are thoughtful about English today consider that rule about conjunctions at the start of a sentence to be the same as the old rule about prepositions at the end of one. It's now okay, they tell us, to start a sentence with a conjunction. They point to the prevalance of this tendency in modern media as justification.

Here's the thing. Stylistically, an expert user of English can mold the language to fit their needs. Expression becomes more important than polemics, and rules go out the window.

For an ESL learner, however, these rules are important because they give a writer a universally comprehensible springboard from which to start. You can only break the rules for stylistic reasons when you know the language well enough to know when you're breaking the rules...

People are lazy. For an ESL student, when it comes to writing, if they can get away with starting a sentence with 'And', which is one of the first words they learn in English, they're going to do so. If 'And' is okay (which it isn't) then the students aren't inclined to learn the subtle differences between phrases like in addition, also, furthermore, on top of that, and (the dreaded) moreover .

It all just becomes AND... Why should they try to learn and use more than AND if it's okay? It's the same with the other conjunctions; reliance on the basic forms retards students' ability to use more distinguished forms.

Don't end a sentence a preposition with... I understand why we no longer follow this rule.

And don't start a sentence with a conjunction: I teach my students this rule while recognizing that many advanced English writers break it. I tell my students they're not advanced.

I don't say it in so many words, but I think that you have to earn the right to start a sentence with a conjunction.

For either NES or non-NES writers, it has to flow out of a command of using a variety of sentence structures effectively.

As an ESL teacher, I'm not dealing with writers who have that kind of command, and so, for them, the rule I learned in 2nd grade English class definitely still applies: don't start a sentence with and, but or so.




The name of the course I took (and sat through a second time because it was that important) WAS The Structure of Present English. I did that during my MA in English and linguistics, when I also learned that Otto Jespersen, a Dane, was not only one of the men who worked on the OED but also wrote a 6 volume grammar of the English language over 100 years ago.

Now, the bit about conjunctions:

Do the students know that and, but and others can combine not only sentences but adjectives and verbs as well? Are they given simple, clear examples of these? Can the students recognize subjects and predicates? Why is it wrong to say a sentence has a subject and a verb? What are the classes of connectors? How do these classes and an intuitive grasp of what phrase and sentence structure help with sentence boundary issues, such as using these words correctly? Why does the discussion of this topic so far sound like inability to see the forest for the trees? And just what did the American educator/philosopher John Dewey mean when he wrote:

"An education is learning what you don't know"?

By Otto Jespersen, Denmark (30th July 2015)

"Should we use the standards we hold our best writers to when marking the writings of our non-NES students?

In my first reply I said "Absolutely not!" I was wrong.
As 'our best writers' make up their own rules, then using their standards would seem to indicate that we should allow for a free-for-all when it comes to written English. Obviously, that's not acceptable... just as laying down the traditional conventions of written English is not a workable alternative, either.

Asian students will probably never understand the complexities of tone and style of written English, so you have to decide what you are teaching: English language or English literature.

"Somchai went swimming. But he forgot his swimsuit. And he forgot his towel. So he didn't know what to do. Because he was an idiot."

That's bad English literature but correct English language.

Teaching a student not to use coordinating conjunctions to begin a sentence as a 'rule' of English writing was something you learned in school. I learned that, too. I subsequently discovered (on my own) that it's not a rule at all. So my teacher was wrong! Now I have to examine everything else my teachers conveyed to me as 'rules.' What else did they get wrong?

Students can be easily taught that there are correct ways to write the language and better ways to write literature. Poetry and music are great examples of this.

If the writing is grammatically correct (no matter how unappealing it comes across as literature) then I see that as a victory and something to build upon.

We remember things we were taught from our teachers that turn out to be wrong. There's no reason to think your students today won't have the same thing happen to them.

There's correct written English and incorrect written English. And then there is literature!

I am enjoying the exchange of ideas afforded to us in these blog replies. There's no other place on the internet for teachers in Asia to discuss actual teaching.

It's interesting and informative to see what other teachers dwell on.

For me, I have my own bugbears...
The mispronunciation of the words 'excuse me'.
The absence of the 's' sound where it should be heard.
The connection of vowel sounds in words like 'doing' and 'saying.'
The pronunciation of words like gloves (glovs) and Russia (russeeya)...

But I digress... ;)

By Mark Newman, Thailand (27th July 2015)

:::"Somchai went swimming. But he forgot his swimsuit."

By making the clause about swimming a single sentence and starting the next one with 'but', the writer has inserted a clear pause and conveyed a tone of afterthought to the swimmer's predicament.

"Somchai went swimming but he forgot his swimsuit."

In the second sentence the severity of the predicament is lessened and more subdued.:::

Okay. Point taken. That's a very clear explanation of when it's okay to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.

Take that same story and make it:

"Somchai went swimming. But he forgot his swimsuit. And he forgot his towel. So he didn't know what to do. Because he was an idiot."

Even when it comes to my pre-intermediate, general English students, I try to install one basic aspect of writing well: vary your sentence structures. Coordinating conjunctions are a great way to make complex sentences.

That said, my conformance to the 'rules' I learned in English class in primary schools aren't effecting my ESL teaching like they once did. Just today in my pre-int class, I taught 'and, but and so' to combine sentences. For me, it was more important to teach the meaning difference between these three words than things like punctuation and form. The seemingly brightest student in the class wanted to use 'and' when the example sentence clearly called for 'so'...

I think this "F*ck the rules!" attitude of ESL teaching today is having an effect on me. In my AndButSo pre-int lesson today, I didn't even approach the punctuation rule I was taught as a kid: and, but and so should be preceded by a comma in a complex sentence. Few follow that rule nowadays. And so I'm not going to teach it.

I just have to remind myself not to apply the red pen to my students' writings when they leave that comma out.

By Joko, Yangon (26th July 2015)

Dear Mark,
::In William Zinsser's brilliant 'On Writing Well' - which is my writing bible - he says "if you ever learned in school that it was wrong to begin sentences with conjunctions, then unlearn it right now!"::

Agreed. If you want to write 'well', then throw out them rules. Use sentence fragments. Vary your sentence structures. Write like you talk and don't worry about whether it conforms to grammatical dogma. So true for writing well.

But what about writing good? Anyone who recognizes what I mean by writing 'well' vs. 'good' is beyond them rules. Only my most bookish upper-int or advanced students recognize the difference in this iconic misuse of English. I've had arguments with my own mother after she'd told me 'I'd done good'... Sorry, Mom, if you're going to praise me, you better know the difference between an adjective and an adverb.

That said, however much I enjoyed reading your critique of the rules, other than saying that there are more important aspects of writing we could be teaching, you didn't address my main point: in ESL learning, you have to learn to go from crawling to walking before you can run. MOREOVER..*gag*, for A1 to B2 learners, AND, BUT, SO and BECAUSE (yes, I'm amending my OP to condemn BECAUSE) are best taught in their primary purpose, i.e., as conjunctions to be used to connect two thoughts in the middle of a complex sentence. Consequently, when we let students use words like 'so' instead of 'consequently', that retards their motivation to develop advanced English skills like the use of the wide variety of diverse, subtle and clarifying discourse markers used at the beginning of a sentence to connect thoughts.

By Joko, Yangon (26th July 2015)


Did you forget the name of the course you took?
I think you mean 'The structure of present-day English.'
I could be wrong. There many be a linguistics course in Denmark that focuses solely on the present tense.

It's great for you that your students thought you were a good teacher.
When your students think you are good then that means that you ARE good.

Moreover (ahem) I'm glad you are 'amused' by our little contributions relating to the subject of teaching English.

Similarly, I'm amused that you made the effort to comment on the article by telling us all how great you think you are without finding the time to add a single word, offering your input on the actual topic.

As a formally qualified instructor with years and years of experience (who has adoring students) it would have been nice to have had your opinion.

Getting back to the topic...

There's no earthly reason why coordinating conjunctions cannot be used to start a sentence. It has been happening for centuries by the best English writers and just because lazy English teachers say that it's wrong doesn't mean that it is.

The overuse of this practice can wear on the reader but it's not absolutely 'wrong' to do it. School English teachers say that it's wrong because some kids overdo it. Rather than teach the subtleties of creative written expression it's easier to simply say 'Don't do it!'

In fact, using coordinating conjunctions to begin a sentence allows the writer a greater degree of flexibility when it comes to his or her style and tone. We take these tones for granted in spoken English but these writing tools are important for writers.

Here's an example...

"Somchai went swimming. But he forgot his swimsuit."

By making the clause about swimming a single sentence and starting the next one with 'but', the writer has inserted a clear pause and conveyed a tone of afterthought to the swimmer's predicament.

"Somchai went swimming but he forgot his swimsuit."

In the second sentence the severity of the predicament is lessened and more subdued. It doesn't have the same emotional impact that the first example does... but it would still be marked down as incorrect by an over zealous English teacher who has no grasp of style and tone and who wants to focus too much on archaic grammar techniques he was taught as a child.

Like I said before... the rules of written English have given way to the habits of written English.
And I, for one, am in favor of that!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (25th July 2015)

It amuses me that people with little or no formal study of the Structure of Present English (the name of the most important course I took as a graduate student in linguistics) can pontificate on these things. By the way, I also spent about 12 years in the States teaching academic writing at the university level and usually wound up with very good evaluations from my students who otherwise hated English and writing.

By Otto Jespersen, Denmark (24th July 2015)

The problem with a 'traditional' and academic approach to teaching the (so called) rules of the English language (especially in Asia) is that you and your students are bombarded with contradictions of these rules in supposedly respectable publications that they see every day.

Newspapers and magazines which were once useful teaching aids are now just awful tools to use in a classroom. Online articles and blogs have long since abandoned traditional rules of written communication for the sake of hastily written snappy entertainment. (Should there be a comma after the word 'written'? Oops!)

Also, it's worth remembering that for the most part, Asians learn English to communicate with other Asians and not native English speakers. Being pedantic about 'old school' rules just takes up too much time and may just 'annoy the pig!' We should be especially cautious about setting the importance of correct grammar too high if the end result of learning English is to be understood (rather than admired!)

I'm not advocating that we should abandon all the rules. But (oops, again!) teachers should be very aware of the level of their students, the reasons why they are studying and the impact that too much correction will have on the student's enthusiasm to learn.

I would find it annoying to read a native English speaker who started sentences with conjunctions because I was raised 'old school.' I wouldn't find the same habit so offensive if the writer was my Asian student.

"Should we use the standards we hold our best writers to when marking the writings of our non-NES students?"

Absolutely not.

Firstly, it's just distracting for the student to have inconsequential elements of written English picked up on if the general meaning and intent is otherwise clear.
Secondly, your limited time with a student or a class can be much better spent covering other, more important aspects of writing.
Thirdly, just because the written English you are reading isn't right, doesn't necessarily mean that it's wrong.

Would you correct a student of intermediate ability if he or she wrote "The girl had brown, long hair."?
I'd have to think twice about that.
For a start I couldn't explain why it should read "The girl had long, brown hair."
'It just does!' isn't a good way to learn!

The rules of written English have to be introduced very delicately by an instructor who is really in tune with his class. The educator should also keep in mind that anything he 'teaches' should be important enough to be learned and remembered. Not everything we know about the English language is worth sharing!

I once taught a well-to-do executive, business writing. He ended every letter with 'regard, Somchai,' He missed the 's' off he word 'regard' every time and I corrected it the first three times and then just gave up. I told him that the missing 's' was significant and noticeable, but he didn't want to learn that. He wanted to learn other things!

The RULES of English writing have given way to the HABITS of English writing, even in the once formal world of business English.

I enjoyed the article immensely but I suspect that there's some frustration that the traditional and correctly written English that we learned as kids has largely gone by the wayside. Bringing it back to an Asian audience may be too much of a challenge!

It's a bit like the difference between Jazz and Rock. For some people, jazz is a pure form of music that speaks from the heart. But (bugger, I did it again!) for most people, it's some annoying twat with a trumpet when a guitar will do just as well!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (24th July 2015)

I don't mind a sentence beginning with "And" in the middle of a paragraph, because it often reasonably serves to connect the thought in the current sentence to the previous sentence.

"So," is often interchangeable with, "Therefore," or, "In summary."

"But," can be an efficient replacement for longer strings such as, "An exception would," or, "It is important to note."

Or disagree with all the above and continue living in 1978.

By UrbanMan, Near an aircon (23rd July 2015)

Hey, Abe. Seems like the ESL teacher's disdain for 'moreover' is pretty common. Ironically, your comment represents one of the few times the word could be inserted properly. Between you first and second sentences, "moreover" would have fit as it essentially means "It's even worse" or "not only that"...

By Joko, Yangon (23rd July 2015)

Agree with the dreaded use of moreover. It's even worse when students use it when speaking!

By Abe, Bangkok (23rd July 2015)

Hi Joko.
I taught academic writing to adult students in Thailand for a good number of years so I'm always excited to see a blog on this topic.

When I saw it was clearly about students not being allowed to begin sentences with conjunctions, I rolled my eyes and thought 'here we go'.

In William Zinsser's brilliant 'On Writing Well' - which is my writing bible - he says "if you ever learned in school that it was wrong to begin sentences with conjunctions, then unlearn it right now!"

But by the time I had got to the end of your blog, you had won me over. I think you're absolutely right. You are not teaching advanced or even 'competent' English writers for the most part. Why shouldn't writing students learn to walk before they can run? I think you're going about things the right way.

Oh, and I'm glad that you seem to hate the word 'moreover' just as much as I do. In fact, I threatened to throw students out of the class if they used it more than once in the same essay. It's the most horrible word.

By philip, samut prakarn (23rd July 2015)

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