As longtime readers have no doubt picked up, I’ve got sort of a distinctive writing style for legal writing. If I had to characterize it, I’d say that it falls somewhere between “prickly” and “shrill.” Short sentences are crucial to this style, such as it is, both because they keep the pace moving and because I am unable to keep big ideas in my head for very long. Shrieking italics also help me to get my important points across.
It’s not easy to write these short, overheated sentences. I often have to start with a coordinating conjunction like “but,” “and,” or “so.”
This almost never poses a problem. But from time to time–and especially when I am coordinating with trial counsel–I’ll get comments back on a draft that seek to reword every one of these sentences. I push back gently, but usually wind up accepting the revisions–partly because the customer is always right, partly because I’m a pushover, and partly because I can’t really justify billing a client for debates over grammar.
In the course of these discussions, I’ve learned that a startling number of lawyers are convinced to a moral certainty that you can’t begin a sentence with “but” or “and.”
Applesauce. There’s no such rule.
Grammar Girl covers this issue thoroughly. Unfortunately, citing a Grammar Girl podcast doesn’t pack quite the persuasive weight that it should, at least in highfalutin’ debates among educated professionals. So I’ve gone up a level: I purchased a copy of the 1965 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Why the 1965 edition? I really don’t know. I once heard (or read?) Bryan Garner insist on the Second Edition above all others as the definitive guide to English as she is spoke. Used copies are readily available on Amazon. I got mine for about $3.00. On Stephen King’s recommendation, I also picked up Warriner’s English Composition and Grammar for a similar price.
But I digress. Here is what the wise and wonderful H.W. Fowler has to tell us from beyond the grave about starting a sentence with “and”:
And beginning a sentence. That it is a solecism to begin a sentence with and is a faintly lingering SUPERSTITION. The OED gives examples ranging from the 10th to the 19th c.; the Bible is full of them.
(A “solecism” is “a mistake in speech or writing.” Yes, I had to look that up.) The superstition may have been “faintly lingering” fifty years ago, but lawyers are clinging to it like that extra space after a period and the uber-weird multiple indent at the start of a paragraph.
If Fowler’s not good enough for you, Grammar Girl pulled this zinger from the Chicago Manual of Style:
There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.
Still not convinced? In The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, our man Bryan Garner says:
When appropriate, use a coordinating conjunction to begin a sentence to emphasize contrast (but, yet), additional support for a proposition (and), an alternative (or), or a logical conclusion (so).
Finally, in Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates, Ross Guberman devotes a whole chapter to the one-syllable opener. He offers examples of sentences starting with “but” and “and” from the likes of John Roberts, Miguel Estrada, and Elena Kagan.
So there you have it: ample authority to justify your next punchy sentence.