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I had a discussion today with a friend over the validity of using (coordinating, correlative) conjunctions like but or and at the start of sentences.

His position was that it breaks a rule of grammar. However, I remembered a post on this site saying that conjunctions at the start of sentences is fine, and that lots of great writers have done that exact thing.

I mentioned this to him, and he challenged me to name an author who did this, and to provide him with examples of such. I found that to my shame I couldn’t name even one.

So what famous authors actually have used conjunctions at the start of sentences, and how did they do it?

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You could tell them to read this article: Steven Pinker: 10 'grammar rules' it's OK to break. The idea you can't start a sentence with a conjunction is so stupendously wrong it's hard to believe it has ever been believed. –  curiousdannii Aug 20 at 9:29
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The correct answer to your question is most likely “all of them”. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 20 at 11:55
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This is one of the pedantic rules that English teachers drill into your head to try to make bad writers able to write something mediocre. If you're an excellent writer, then there are no rules. –  Kik Aug 20 at 13:17
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@Kik is exactly right. This answer, that has been sitting on this very site for a full three years, nails it. For the sake of simplicity, teachers are sometimes forced to present to a child something that is really a soft guideline on X as a hard rule on Y. And it's not even bad in and of itself. It accomplishes the short-term goal, and in the long term the child is supposed to grow up and get a brain to recognize what's really going on. But some children never do. And while that should be their problem, they like to make it everyone else's. –  RegDwigнt Aug 20 at 17:47
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And yes, rather than simply upvoting Janus, by all means do go ahead and reverse the challenge. Challenge your friend to name just one book in which not a single sentence begins with a conjunction. –  RegDwigнt Aug 20 at 17:55

6 Answers 6

up vote 32 down vote accepted

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, third edition (1979), has a number of instances, as well.

Hans Christian Andersen, "The Emperor's New Clothes":

'But the Emperor has nothing on at all!' cried a little child.

Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (1869):

But that vast portion, lastly, of the working-class which, raw and half-developed, has long lain half-hidden amidst its poverty and squalor, and is now issuing from its hiding-place to assert an Englishman's heaven-born privilege of doing as he likes, and is beginning to perplex us by marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes—to this vast residuum we may with great propriety give the name of Populace.

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey:

'And what are you reading, Miss —?' 'Oh! it is only a novel!' replies the young lady: while she lays down her book with affected indifference or momentary shame.

Francis Bacon, "Of Death":

And therefore death is no such terrible enemy, when a man hath so many attendants about him that can win the combat of him.

Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (1867):

But of all the nations in the world the English are perhaps the least a nation of pure philosophers.

Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on on Liberty:

Injustice, poverty, slavery, ignorance—these may be cured by reform or revolution. But men do not live only by fighting evils.

The Bible (King James version):

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Thomas Browne, The Garden of Cyrus (1658):

But the quincunx of heaven runs low, and 'tis time to close the five ports of knowledge.

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress (1678):

Yet my great-grandfather was but a water-man, looking one way, and rowing another: and I got most of my estate by the same occupation.

Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Present Discontents (1770):

I am not one of those who think that the people are never in the wrong. They have been so, frequently and outrageously, both in other countries and in this. But I do say, that in all disputes between them and their rulers, the presumption is at least upon a par in favour of the people.

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy:

Tobacco, divine, rare, superexcellent tobacco, which goes far beyond all their panaceas, potable gold, and philosopher's stones, a sovereign remedy to all diseases ... But, as it is commonly abused by most men, which take it as tinkers do ale, 'tis a plague, a mischief, a violent purger of goods, lands, health, hellish, devilish, and damned tobacco, the ruin and overthrow of body and soul.

Bishop Butler, The Analogy of Religion (1756):

But to us, probability is the very guide of life.

Samuel Butler, Note Books:

I believe that more unhappiness comes from this source than from any other—I mean from the attempt to prolong family connection unduly and to make people hang together artificially who would never naturally do so. The mischief among the lower classes is not so great, but among the middle and upper classes it is killing a large number daily. And the old people do not really like it much better than the young.

And that takes us through the letters A and B.

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I wonder whether examples from dialogue should count, if the character would not be expected to use proper grammar. –  Barmar Aug 25 at 19:25
    
That's a legitimate point, Barmar. Likewise, translations (such as the one from Andersen) may not accurately reflect the original language’s wording. My intention was simply to report on examples that begin with conjunctions and that Oxford deemed worthy of including in its book of notable quotations. But non-dialogue examples from Andersen, Austen, and Bunyan (who authored the quotations I cited involving dialogue), aren’t hard to find. From "The Emperor's New Clothes": "And he [the Emperor] gave the two rogues a great deal of cash in hand that they might begin their work at once." –  Sven Yargs Aug 26 at 2:08
    
From Northanger Abbey (page 3): “But from fifteen to seventeen she [Catherine Morland] was in training for a heroine ; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.” –  Sven Yargs Aug 26 at 2:09
    
And from The Pilgrim’s Progress (chapter 13): “But as for Christian, he had some respite, and was remanded back to prison ; so he remained there for a space ; but He that overrules all things, having the power of their rage in his own hand, so brought it about that Christian for that time escaped them, and went his way.” None of these three sentences appears in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which disqualified them from inclusion in my original list. –  Sven Yargs Aug 26 at 2:09

Examples from Tolkien’s Legendarium

For my own demonstrative examples, I’ve chosen just one “great writer”, so that some measure of frequency of this phenomenon within a single writer’s works can be taken.

Across The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien began sentences with these seven (potential) conjunctions the indicated number of times each, sorted in descending order of frequency:

2,871  But
1,972  And
  731  For
  358  So
  273  Yet
   78  Or
   37  Nor
 -----------
 6,320 all

False Positives

Because those just count sentence-starts, not running the text through a syntactic analyser to determine actual parts of speech, the numbers of at least some are inflated due to false positives.

Although but and so also have some false positives as well, this is perhaps more true of for than of the others. This is because for is much more often used as a preposition than as a conjunction. About conjunctive uses of for, the OED has this to say:

The use of for as a conj. has not been found earlier than the 12th c. The older lang. supplied the place of the conj. by locutions in which for prep. governed a neuter demonstrative pronoun followed by a relative particle: for ðon ðe, for ðý ðe, etc. (see for-thon, for-thy). The conjunctional use of for = for ðon ðe may be explained either as an extension of the functions of the prep. to govern a noun-sentence, or as an ellipsis.

In OE. for and fore seem to have been used indiscriminately as preps.; in ME. they were gradually differentiated.

B. conj.

  • 1. Introducing the cause of a fact, the statement of which precedes or follows: Because. Cf. A. 21 b. Obs. exc. arch.
  • 2 a. Introducing the ground or reason for something previously said: Seeing that, since. Cf. Gr. γάρ, L. nam or enim, Fr. car, Ger. denn.
  • 2 b. Introducing a detailed proof.

For while using for as a conjunction may sound literary or at times even archaic, it surely does occur in the register that Tolkien was writing in.


Corporal Citations

Below I provide three random samples from each set for each of the seven coordinating conjunctions which I tested for, generally one apiece from each of the three words named above:

But

  • But above this gate, and behind it even to the mountains, he piled the thunderous towers of Thangorodrim, that were made of the ash and slag of his subterranean furnaces, and the vast refuse of his tunnellings.
  • But after ages alone in the dark Gollum’s heart was black, and treachery was in it.
  • But against this Gandalf had spoken urgently, because of the evil that dwelt in the valley, where the minds of living men would turn to madness and horror, and because also of the news that Faramir had brought.

And

  • And all the coasts and seaward regions of the western world suffered great change and ruin in that time; for the seas invaded the lands, and shores foundered, and ancient isles were drowned, and new isles were uplifted; and hills crumbled and rivers were turned into strange courses.
  • And after all he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.
  • And all those rings that he governed he perverted, the more easily since he had a part in their making, and they were accursed, and they betrayed in the end all those that used them.

For

  • For as has been told and as is known to all, being written in lore and sung in many songs, Melkor slew the Trees of the Valar with the aid of Ungoliant, and escaped, and came back to Middle-earth.
  • For he saw spiders swarming up all the neighboring trees, and crawling along the boughs above the heads of the dwarves.
  • For there shall walk a power in the forests whose wrath they will arouse at their peril.

So

  • So after a brief rest they set out again and were soon lost in a shadowy silent world, cut off from all view of the lands about, either the hills that they had left or the mountains that they sought.
  • So following the hobbit, down into the lowest cellars they crept.
  • So between them our enemies have contrived only to bring Merry and Pippin with marvellous speed, and in the nick of time, to Fangorn, where otherwise they would never have come at all!

Yet

  • Yet after the fall of Sauron their power was ever at work, and where they abode there mirth also dwelt and all things were unstained by the griefs of time.
  • Yet as Gimli after learned it was still two hours ere sunset of the day on which they had set out from Dunharrow; though for all that he could then tell it might have been twilight in some later year, or in some other world.
  • Yet for a while I stand in the place of the Steward of Gondor, and it is mine to think first of its people.

Or

  • Or because I do not go, and you desire still to be near me.
  • Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons?
  • Or would be, if Lugbúrz would let him alone.

Nor

  • Nor could the stronghold of Morgoth be ever wholly encircled: for the Iron Mountains, from whose great curving wall the towers of Thangorodrim were thrust forward, defended it upon either side, and were impassable to the Noldor, because of their snow and ice.
  • Nor did they hear or feel him trotting along well behind their torch-light as they led off their prisoners into the forest.
  • Nor in all my realm shall it be openly spoken, while my power endures.

Special Effects

There is nothing especially unusual, let alone remarkable, about beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.

At times, though, this is done for purposeful effect. The most intense such effect in all of Tolkien’s writings occurs in the following passage from the end of The Lord of the Rings when Faramir and Éowyn await news of the Captains of the West, who had gone off to the Black Gate while those two lay in the Houses of the Healing.

After the Ring is destroyed, a great eagle appears, truly a messenger of the “gods” (the Valar) sent to bring good tidings of great joy to a beleaguered people. A new day is dawning in the city of the Tower of the Guard (Minas Tirith), for the eagle gives the city its old name back, the Tower of the Sun (Minas Anor). The entire scene explodes with light.

Here the repetitive lines starting over and over again with either and or for are deliberately meant to evoke the Hebrew psalms as translated into the King James Version of the Bible.

To anyone familiar with the Psalms — as would all readers have been when Tolkien wrote it — the effect is a sublimely powerful one. The Sing and rejoice is clearly from the Psalms, as is the repetition of the conjunctions. And lest there be any doubt remaining that this were done with full intent aforethought, he reverts to the Early Modern English of the KJV: note all the instances of ye and hath.

The following excerpt occurs in the chapter “The Stewart and the King” from Book VI of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (bold emphasis mine, to show the parts meant to evoke the Psalms):

      And so they stood on the walls of the City of Gondor, and a great wind rose and blew, and their hair, raven and golden, streamed out mingling in the air. And the Shadow departed, and the Sun was unveiled, and light leaped forth; and the waters of Anduin shone like silver, and in all the houses of the City men sang for the joy that welled up in their hearts from what source they could not tell.

      And before the Sun had fallen far from the noon out of the East there came a great Eagle flying, and he bore tidings beyond hope from the Lords of the West, crying:

          Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
          for the Realm of Sauron is ended for ever,
              and the Dark Tower is thrown down.

          Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
          for your watch hath not been in vain,
          and the Black Gate is broken,
          and your King hath passed through,
              and he is victorious.

          Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
          for your King shall come again,
          and he shall dwell among you
              all the days of your life.

          And the Tree that was withered shall be renewed,
          and he shall plant it in the high places,
              and the City shall be blessed.

              Sing all ye people!


   And the people sang in all the ways of the City.

Now go back and try rewriting that passage without any instances of and and for at the beginning of the sentences and independent clauses within. It is an interesting experiment: you will see this scintillating passage deflate like a beach ball all of whose air has escaped it.

We should all be grateful that Tolkien was a Professor of English, not someone cowed into insipid writing by obsequious obedience to fake “rules” which are themselves nothing but figments of prescriptivists’ cruel unimaginations, for we should not otherwise have such stirring words of joy to inspire us.

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"Now go back and try rewriting that passage without any instances of and and for at the beginning of the sentences and independent clauses within." It is never argued that a coordinating conjunction should not start an independent clause, as a comma with such a conjunction is the norm for linking such. Only starting sentences is (as this question demonstrates) debated. So in your final example I count only six (if one includes the one following a semicolon) that one should possibly remove based on that rule. –  ScottS Aug 21 at 15:54
    
However, your example leads me to question your initial numbers: are those numbers at the beginning of sentences or independent clauses? If the latter, then you have a heap more false positives in your stats. However, +1 as I appreciate the type of look you have attempted here. –  ScottS Aug 21 at 15:54
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@ScottS It is only at the beginning of actual sentences (with optional leading quotes) that these seven words are counted, and no attempt is made to identify instances where they occur mid-sentence as one such does in the sentence you are about to finish reading. :) –  tchrist Aug 21 at 17:07
    
Okay, I just wanted to be sure the stats had been generated correctly, because all the bolding of mid-sentence conjunctions in the final quote had me wondering whether the parameters had been set up correctly or not. Good analysis. –  ScottS Aug 21 at 17:13
    
@ScottS Thanks. The bolding in the final example was completely manual, and it included many instances that did not contribute to the tallies. –  tchrist Aug 21 at 17:16

Perhaps he's heard of the King James Bible? It may be hard to read now but it's been called one of the greatest works of the English language. I recommend starting on the first page:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

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Wow! I know the Bible very well, but I never noticed that the first 3 sentences all start with prepositions. That's a real eye-opener for me. –  Mathias Foster Aug 20 at 9:34
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Almost every verse starts with a preposition or a conjunction! (Just copying the Hebrew and Greek really.) If you ever listen to someone talking they'll start half their sentences with and too, it's the most normal thing there is. –  curiousdannii Aug 20 at 9:36
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As @curiousdannii indirectly points out, there's a reason for all these conjunctions in the Bible: they are more or less mandatory in the original Hebrew and Greek, and they have been deliberately kept in the translation, so that the Bible in practically any language has far more sentences that start with conjunctions than any average sample of the language does. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 20 at 11:58
    
see the book of mormon for even more examples of this. except it was originally written in english. –  sgroves Aug 20 at 21:02
    
@sgroves Debatable, but not here. Suffice it to say that there has been a lot of controversy about the linguistic origins of the Book of Mormon, and a lot of points for and against. I don't think a categorical statement is justified. –  Emmett R. Aug 21 at 15:33

On a hunch I opened The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner, once, at a random page and saw:

It was a while before the last stroke ceased vibrating. It stayed in the air, more felt than heard, for a long time. Like all the bells that ever rang still ringing in the long dying light-rays and Jesus and Saint Francis talking about his sister. Because if it were just to hell; if that were all of it. Finished. If things just finished themselves. Nobody else there but her and me. If we could just have done something so dreadful that they would have fled hell except us. I have committed incest I said Father it was I it was not Dalton Ames    And when he put Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames.

The choice of book wasn't random but I swear to you, I did not try multiple books or multiple pages. First time ;-)

Note that the initial "because" isn't always "grammatically incorrect", but in this case Faulkner uses it to introduce a dangling subordinate clause. There are some other sentence fragments with "if". There isn't actually a period in my edition before the "And", but to the extent that stream-of-consciousness writing can be said to have sentences at all, I think this starts one.

So I'm not sure that "great writers" are necessarily good authorities on style, since they fairly predictably break any "bureaucratic" rule you can think of for effect. In this case, the initial conjunctions are no barrier at all to clear communication (although perhaps the content itself is obscure). Even rules that you'd think are necessary for clear communication can go out of the window, though, to a particular end. The act of breaking a rule is in itself significant, and doesn't necessarily negate the rule's common applicability.

So, while the many examples given in other answers are excellent demonstrations that this particular "rule" is silly, beware arguing from the greatness of the author!

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+1 for pointing out the fallacy, even though the "rule" is still silly. –  WinnieNicklaus Aug 20 at 21:23

Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, p. 11 paragraph 3:

But back at the Stardust Band Shell with Marguerite....

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, last sentence of Chapter VI:

And how slow and still the time did drag along.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha, Introduction

"And the pleasant watercourses, you could trace them through the valley..."

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act 1, Scence 1, Horatious starts a speech:

And then it started like a guilty thing.

Also, Paul, in the letter to the Corinthians, on a number of occasions starts a sentence with "and" or "but".

[Yes, I know that the Twain citation is contained within dialog, and that the Longfellow citation is poetry, and the Shakespeare is from a play.]

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Thank you for your answer. It doesn't matter that there is dialog and poetry and a play - it's still literature. –  Mathias Foster Aug 20 at 6:04
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You forgot to mention and that Paul was not writing in English, so we may have to credit the translators for placing the conjunctions at the front ;) –  oerkelens Aug 20 at 11:55
    
@oerkelens: Not entirely, as the Greek that Paul did write in has the conjunctions beginning the sentences (so the translators were just following the source language), which in turn is due partly to Paul's Hebrew background, which regularly starts sentences with the waw prefix working as a conjunction to continue narrative (among other uses). So the form of the English in the Bible is highly influenced by the source languages' form (Hebrew and Greek mainly), more than the translators decision (other than to follow that form). –  ScottS Aug 21 at 17:31

I suppose I'm just piling on, since so many examples have already been provided. But when we are dispelling a persistent myth, there's no need to pull back any punches!

Here are 10 counterexamples breaking this so-called Tenth Commandment of Grammar; these authors would likely be considered "great writers" by most.

I. The Thirty Mile River was wide open. Its wild water defied the frost, and it was in the eddies only and in the quiet places that the ice held at all. Six days of exhausting toil were required to cover those thirty terrible miles. And terrible they were, for every foot of them was accomplished at the risk of life to dog and man. A dozen times, Perrault, nosing the way broke through the ice bridges, being saved by the long pole he carried, which he so held that it fell each time across the hole made by his body. But a cold snap was on, the thermometer registering fifty below zero, and each time he broke through he was compelled for very life to build a fire and dry his garments.
      (Jack London, The Call of the Wild)

II. At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.
      (H. Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener)

III. There was a piece of ornamental water immediately below the parapet, on the other side, into which Mr. James Harthouse had a very strong inclination to pitch Mr. Thomas Gradgrind junior, as the injured men of Coketown threatened to pitch their property into the Atlantic. But he preserved his easy attitude; and nothing more solid went over the stone balustrades than the accumulated rosebuds now floating about, a little surface-island.
      (Dickens, Hard Times)

IV. Many days passed before we could speak to the Golden One again. But then came the day when the sky turned white, as if the sun had burst and spread its flame in the air, and the fields lay still without breath, and the dust of the road was white in the glow. So the women of the field were weary, and they tarried over their work, and they were far from the road when we came. But the Golden One stood alone at the hedge, waiting. We stopped and we saw that their eyes, so hard and scornful to the world, were looking at us as if they would obey any word we might speak.
      (A. Rand, Anthem)

V. At the next corner she got out, of course; and as she had no more money, she had to walk the rest of the way to the yards in the pouring rain. And so all day long she sat shivering, and came home at night with her teeth chattering and pains in her head and back.
      (Upton Sinclair, The Jungle)

VI. Men and women came to see her, met her down town, where she went to do her marketing, brought her home in their cars--and came in for a moment to talk and to rest, in the glamour that still played in her smile. But men who did not know her no longer followed her with admiring glances in the street; a diaphanous veil had come down over her beauty, destroying its vividness, yet bringing neither wrinkles nor fat.
      (Fitzgerald, The Lees Of Happiness)

VII. About midnight, while we still sat up, the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building: a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen-fire. We thought a bolt had fallen in the middle of us; and Joseph swung on to his knees, beseeching the Lord to remember the patriarchs Noah and Lot, and, as in former times, spare the righteous, though he smote the ungodly. I felt some sentiment that it must be a judgment on us also. The Jonah, in my mind, was Mr. Earnshaw; and I shook the handle of his den that I might ascertain if he were yet living. He replied audibly enough, in a fashion which made my companion vociferate, more clamorously than before, that a wide distinction might be drawn between saints like himself and sinners like his master. But the uproar passed away in twenty minutes, leaving us all unharmed; excepting Cathy, who got thoroughly drenched for her obstinacy in refusing to take shelter, and standing bonnetless and shawl-less to catch as much water as she could with her hair and clothes.
      (E. Bronte, Wuthering Heights)

VIII. It was nearly half-past twelve. He had just come back from church, hoarse and weary with preaching. He preached with fury, with passion, an iron man beating with a flail upon the souls of his congregation. But the souls of the faithful at Crome were made of india-rubber, solid rubber; the flail rebounded. They were used to Mr. Bodiham at Crome. The flail thumped on india-rubber, and as often as not the rubber slept.
      (A. Huxley, Chrome Yellow)

IX. I drew a great security in this particular from her mere smooth aspect. There was nothing in her fresh face to pass on to others my horrible confidences. She believed me, I was sure, absolutely: if she hadn't I don't know what would have become of me, for I couldn't have borne the business alone. But she was a magnificent monument to the blessing of a want of imagination, and if she could see in our little charges nothing but their beauty and amiability, their happiness and cleverness, she had no direct communication with the sources of my trouble.
      (Henry James, The Turn of the Screw)

X. "There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it. And now for lunch, and then for Norman Neruda. Her attack and her bowing are splendid."
      (Doyle, A Study in Scarlet)

I suppose your friend could dispute that last one, because it's part of a fictional character's quotation, and therefore not bound to the rules of grammar. Still, I stand by the others I've excerpted. And besides, do you really want to argue with Sherlock Holmes?

By the way, a good way to find more is by searching for strings like . But or . And and making sure the "Match Case" option is set.

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For a bit more finesse, I’d suggest searching for (?x) (?m: ^ | [.!?] \p{Quotation_Mark}? \s+ ) \p{Quotation_Mark}? (And|But|Or|Nor|So|For|Yet) \b if your regex compiler admits such niceties. At least, that’s (essentially) what I did. :) –  tchrist Aug 21 at 17:59

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