Reader FW asked for some advice about a nanowrimo discussion of "Ands and buts", which started Nov. 3 with this question:
So this is one that always get [sic] me.
Grammatically speaking, or however it is known, can you use Ands and Buts at the beginning of sentences? And can you use it at the start of dialogue as well?
A participant using the name pointytilly links to Paul Brians' list of "non-errors" in defense of the view that sentence-initial and and but are "grammatically correct". And indeed they are, according to essentially everyone with any plausible claim to expertise, prescriptivists and descriptivists alike.
As Arnold Zwicky wrote ("However,…" 11/1/2006):
Mark notes that the AHD [American Heritage Dictionary] note for and rejects NIC ["No Initial Coordinators"] out of hand, and he provides a smorgasbord of cites (and statistics) from reputable authors. Similarly MWDEU [Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage]. Paul Brians, collector of common errors in English, labels sentence-initial coordinators a "non-error". Bryan Garner denies, all over the place, that NIC has any validity. Even the curmudgeonly Robert Hartwell Fiske tells his readers that there's absolutely nothing wrong with sentence-initial coordinators. A point of usage and style on which Liberman and I and the AHD and the MWDEU stand together with Brians and Garner and Fiske (and dozens of other advice writers) is, truly, not a disputed point. NIC is crap.
But still it lives on, as what I've called a zombie rule. It's been lurking in the grammatical shadows for some time — at least a hundred years, to judge from MWDEU. Hardly any usage manual subscribes to it, but it is, apparently, widely taught in schools, at least in the U.S., with the result that educated people tend to be nagged by a feeling that there is something bad about sentence-initial and (and but and so). (It might well be that this sense of unease rises with level of education. Someone should look at this possibility.)
Back on nanowrimo, Tom L Waters contributed this interesting counter-argument:
Allow me a quibble, pointytilly. The site you link to (which I am a fan of, by the way) is concerned with usage standards, not grammar. They are related but not identical. Grammar deals with categories such as parts of speech, and the logical rules of syntax for constructing sentences. Grammatically, conjunctions link words, phrases, or clauses. So from a grammatical standpoint, a sentence beginning with a conjunction is a fragment, and hence ungrammatical.
For many decades, grammar per se has become less and less relevant. From a linguistic standpoint, the rules of grammar are not adequate to the task of describing how language is actually used. Talking about acceptable usage rather than grammatical correctness avoids some of the problems created by grammar's emphasis on categories and rules, and recognizes the subtleties and complexities of natural languages.
Nevertheless, the rules of grammar remain one way that readers will evaluate the "correctness" of a piece of writing, so it's helpful to understand when grammatical rules are being broken, even if the usage in question is otherwise acceptable.
But if the "grammatical" definition of conjunction included sentences among the things to be linked, then sentence-initial conjunctions would be "grammatical", right? Well, the relevant definition in the OED is: "One of the Parts of Speech; an uninflected word used to connect clauses or sentences, or to co-ordinate words in the same clause." Merriam-Webster's definition is "an uninflected linguistic form that joins together sentences, clauses, phrases, or words".
Mr. Waters adds:
Although beginning a sentence with a conjunction is acceptable in fiction (there is wide agreement on this), it is not acceptable in technical, academic, or formal writing.
In dealing with someone who exhibits this level of zombie-like persistence, despite lists of devastating counter-examples from the most authoritative sources of formal writing, in the face of rational counter-arguments from every available grammatical authority, it's clear that the expertise that FW needs is not linguistic. She should turn instead to Columbus's list of rules for surviving in a zombie-infested world, and perhaps especially #22, "When in doubt, know your way out".
And a little sunscreen never hurt anybody.