Grammar Lesson of the Day: but

Grammar Lesson of the Day: But.


“Never begin a sentence with but.”  So my college freshmen tell me.  They also tell me that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat (everybody knew it was round), that women in the Middle Ages were no better than cattle (they had more freedom than they would enjoy until the twentieth century), that people in the Middle Ages were morose and grim (they were boisterous partiers who loved color), that they were morbidly fascinated with demons (they portrayed demons as ridiculous stooges), and they were oppressed by their kings (most of the kings were weak).
Again I open my Bible at random: “But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”  And again: “But woe unto you, Pharisees!”  And again: “But I know him, for I am from him, and he hath sent me.”  If it is good enough for Almighty God, it is good enough for a freshman, certainly.

I don’t mean merely to be facetious.  I have just opened up my current copy of First Things, a sophisticated and literate journal of theology and philosophy for the public square. My eye immediately falls upon an article on Camus by my friend Robert Royal, who not only begins a sentence with but – he begins the first sentence of a paragraph with that useful word.  Then I turn to the monthly article by another friend, David Hart, this one on the nostalgic work by two young men who died in the imbecilic and ghastly First World War, and read the following pair of sentences:


Had either Alain-Fournier or Butterworth lived a full life, the symbolic power of his youthful works might not now seem so overwhelming. But the former was only twenty-seven when he died in battle near Vaux-les-Palameix (his body remained unidentified until 1991), and the latter only thirty-one when he was killed in a trench near the Somme (his body was never recovered); and it is difficult to encounter their art without the transience of their lives at least modulating how one reacts to it.


The words but and and are not just logical connectors.  They are musical bridges; along with the punctuation, they set a tempo; and in this poignant context their relative silence suggests far more than they say.  Consider how much feebler, and clumsier, and yet noisier the lines would be if Hart had written however instead of but, and moreover instead of and; or if he had broken the sentence after the second parenthetical clause, resuming the discussion with a transitional that perhaps explains why, or some such bit of throat-clearing.
Never begin a sentence with but?  There never was such a rule in English grammar.  Nor was there ever such a rule in classical Greek, or in Latin.  It is the quick and natural way to begin an adversative sentence, one that shifts direction from the previous, or contradicts it, or backs away.  Unless you have a particular reason for preferring the slower comma, however, comma, not only may you begin a sentence with but: you really should do it.  I tell my students this all the time. But they are slow to turn from their old ways, the reprobates.

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