How To Use 'But' And 'However' At The Beginning Of Sentences

I don't buy into the rule that says you should never begin a sentence with the word 'but'. If the preceding clause is complex, starting a fresh sentence often increases readability. That said, there are principles you should remember when using 'however' as an alternative.

Picture by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Mind Your Language's oracle on these matters, the Macquarie Dictionary, offers useful advice on both these points. Here it is on 'but' at the start of sentences:

Some writers object to sentences beginning with but on the grounds that it is a conjunction which should link clauses within a sentence and should not appear to link a new sentence with the previous one. In fact many writers do use but at the beginning of a sentence and there is no reason to object to the practice provided that it is not overdone.

Writers who don't favour using 'but' in this way often turn to 'however' as an alternative. That can be a useful strategy, and a way of introducing variety. However, there are pitfalls here too, as the Macquarie points out:

It is now common to begin a sentence with However, but it should be noted that a comma after it may be useful in distinguishing however meaninging 'nevertheless' from however meaning 'in whatever way'.

You can see that clearly with these sentence beginnings:

However, the writer chose a different approach . . .

However the writer chose a different approach . . .

The first conveys the sense "despite what we have discussed previously, the writer chose a different approach". The second conveys the sense "We don't know how the writer chose a different approach". Adding the comma after 'however' makes that distinction much clearer, even without knowing how the sentences end.

Lifehacker's Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


    First sentence needs a re-read.

    "I don’t buy into the rule that says you can should never begin a sentence with the word ‘but’."

      I don't buy into the rule that says you can should never use the phrase 'can should' in a sentence

        I'm amazed it took this long for Muphry's Law to hit Mind Your Language. Fixed now!

          You should also double check the second quote "... a comma after it may be useful in distinguishing however meaning ‘nevertheless’ from however meaning ‘in whatever way’."

          I'm assuming meaning was intended where meaninging was interred.

            And Muphry's Law strikes again! Thanks for pointing it out, I should not have let that one through.

    I'm just puzzled by the photo......

    What the hell does Ron Jeremy have to do with this??

      Regarding the photo: the only image of Sir Mix-A-Lot we had rights to and that was suitably oriented also featured Ron Jeremy.

        Which when you think about it is as valid a connection to the homophone "butt" as Sir Mix-a-lot (Ron liked them too and I'm sure he couldn't lie about it either).

    What about Kylie Mole's guidelines on when to use 'but' at the end of a sentence.

    Speaking of words. Is Wrote a word? My old english teacher would get pissed whenever we used it but I always pointed out to Murder She Wrote

      What would be the past tense of "write" otherwise?

        "Writed"? Usually by people who haven't very much.

    "However, there are pitfalls here too... "
    I like what you're doing there... ;-)

    The Macquarie Dictionary also seems to think meaninging is a word looking at the quote, so please excuse me if I ignore their advice.

    Using any conjunction at the start of a sentence is just laziness on the part of the writer. That's the kindest view. An unkind view is that the writer is ignorant of basic rules of grammar, and should not be writing. Personally I find that that bad grammar detracts from the pleasure of reading . I don't enjoy reading anything that is badly written, no matter how interesting the subject might be.

      Surely the information is more important? The higher your reading level the easier it is to skim over badly written text, while still getting all the relevant information. Though, when it comes to story, that's another matter and totally agree.

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