Beginning with “but”

There’s no rule against beginning a sentence with but.

Sure, it’s a wise admonition from middle-school English teachers that novice writers avoid beginning a series of sentences with but.

  • In July we went to Six Flags. But it rained that day. But my mom said we could go again later. But by August, we didn’t have time. But I really wanted to go.

In high school, many English teachers embrace the beginning but. My son’s 9th-grade English teacher included “beginning with a conjunction” in a list of writing techniques, offering this example, But how could this be? and requiring students to create their own examples.

What? Teaching kids it’s okay to begin a sentence with but? No wonder writing skills are in decline and college students (not to mention law students) don’t write well.

But wait.

I applaud this high-school teacher, and he’s in line with the general view of numerous writing authorities.

I’ve made this point before: Lite Connectors, Austin Lawyer 13 (Dec. 2008 / Jan. 2009). I won’t rehash the sources I quoted there, but I’ll refer you to Bryan A. Garner, On Beginning Sentences with But, Mich. B.J. 43 (Oct. 2003); The Chicago Manual of Style (“a perfectly proper word to open a sentence”); and the Internet, where a Google search for “beginning with but” turns up many reputable authorities recommending the practice.

As with many writing “rules,” the truth is that beginning with but isn’t about wrong or right; it’s about formality, emphasis, and style. So don’t uncritically apply this nonrule. Think about your writing goals and options and decide how you want to use the language.

Let’s start with formality. Although we should be comfortable beginning with but in e-mail messages, print correspondence, and inter-office memos, some lawyers avoid the practice in formal documents like motions, briefs, and judicial opinions. Yet the technique has been used in formal legal documents for centuries. Here are some examples.

From a judicial opinion in 2013:

  • “But this case has nothing to do with federalism.” City of Arlington v. FCC, 569 U.S. 290, 305 (2013).

From a judicial opinion in 1901:

  • “But this is not sufficient.” Colburn v. Grant, 181 U.S. 601, 607 (1901).

From a judicial opinion in 1793:

“But this redress goes only half way.” Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. 419, 422 (1793).

From an appellate brief in 2003:

  • “But the EPA cannot claim that ADEC’s decision was unreasoned.” Alaska Dept. of Envtl. Conservation v. EPA, 2003 WL 2010655 at 46 (U.S. Pet. Brief 2003).

And from the U.S. Constitution:

  • “But in all such Cases the Votes of both Houses shall be determined by yeas and Nays . . . .” U.S. Const. art. I, § 7.

In fact, the Constitution has seven sentences beginning with but.

If we accept that beginning with but is appropriate for formal legal documents, then it becomes a tool we can use to manage emphasis. Using the example from Arlington v. FCC, note the differing emphases in these three versions:

  1. But this case has nothing to do with federalism. (succinctly emphasizes the contrast)
  2. However, this case has nothing to do with federalism. (contrasts but moves more slowly)
  3. This case, however, has nothing to do with federalism. (even slower and emphasizes this case)

You can do more than use the technique for emphasis. Once you’re comfortable beginning with but, you can use it to create readable, crisp transitions that quickly orient the reader to a change of direction. For crisp transitions, yet is a great word to begin with, too.

From a judicial opinion in 1968:

  • “Yet we see no possible rational basis.” Glona v. Am. Guarantee & Liab. Ins. Co., 391 U.S. 73, 75 (1968).

Yes, you can begin with however or in contrast or on the other hand. They’re fine. But now we know that beginning with but is fine for formal legal documents, gives us a tool for managing emphasis, and makes a great connector.

After all, there’s no rule against beginning a sentence with but.