Mighty Red Pen

October 12, 2009

But . . . but . . .

Filed under: Grammar goddess,Pop culture — mighty red pen @ 3:39 pm
Tags: ,

Meant to share this a while ago, it’s an article from the Guardian called “Paul McCartney’s Schoolboy Essay Found 56 Years On.” No, it’s not that MRP is any kind of Beatles’ fan (much to the chagrin on Mister MRP), but this little tidbit caught my eye:

The essay has specialist significance for Beatles enthusiasts thanks to a grammatical error, ringed in red by his English master at Joseph Williams primary school in Belle Vale. Although McCartney may have been wrong to begin two sentences with the conjunction “But”, his capital Bs reveal the same twirly ends later used on the Beatles’ drum skin in 1962—his contribution to the design.

Wait, what? Starting a sentence with but is a grammatical error? Yeah, yeah, I know your high school English teacher always told you to never start a sentence with and or but. But I’m here to tell you: It’s not that big a deal.

And here’s Patricia O’Conner (Woe Is I) on the topic:

There’s no law against occasionally using and or but to begin a sentence.

Over the years, some English teachers have enforced the notion that and and but should be used only to join elements within a sentence, not to join one sentence with another. Not so. It’s been common practice to begin sentences with them since at least as far back as the tenth century. But don’t overdo it or your writing will sound monotonous.

And Grammar Girl opines:

Starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction is an informal style; it makes your writing sound conversational. In addition, a conjunction at the beginning usually draws attention to the sentence and adds punch. . . . [M]any teachers cautioned students against starting sentences with conjunctions (especially in the past) because if you don’t do it right, you can create sentence fragments.

And finally, Martha Brockenbrough of SPOGG weighs in:

It Ain’t So No. 4: It’s wrong to start a sentence with “and” or “but.”

Writers have been doing this for more than 1,000 years, despite the hand-waving of frantic English teachers. And they’re going to keep on doing it. I could have used a comma between the “teachers” and the “and,” but the period gives a longer pause and more emphasis on the second sentence.

The conjunction still links the two ideas together; they just happen to be two sentences instead of one. It’s fine to do with good reason, but your writing will be choppy if you do it too much.

And so forth. So on two counts of wrongfully using the English language by starting a sentence with a conjunction, the court of MRP hereby acquits Sir Paul McCartney.

Hat tip @thatwhichmatter.



  1. And now we know McCartney did it, it will start a fashion. I bet he never thought he’d get famous in his old age for starting a punctuation craze. Slightly more exciting than his classical music, though.

    Comment by Fran — October 12, 2009 @ 3:48 pm | Reply

  2. I like your article. But there is (I hope you don’t mind me saying so) a typo in the Grammar Girl quote which made me wonder, for a second, what kind of pronoun “ha” might be.

    Comment by rip — October 13, 2009 @ 10:29 am | Reply

  3. Darn it! . . . fixed, thanks. How could I mind when you are so nice about it?! 🙂

    Comment by mighty red pen — October 13, 2009 @ 10:35 am | Reply

  4. Perhaps it wasn’t that McCartney started a sentence with ‘But’, it was that he started two sentences with ‘But’. Perhaps his English master was looking for a little variation.

    Comment by JD (The Engine Room) — October 26, 2009 @ 2:32 pm | Reply

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