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I have a phrase which I want to write, but I'm not sure of the correct grammar.

I want to say:

He sat (dramatic pause) and I (beat) nervous of what he was about to say...

Would I write this as:

He sat. And I, nervous of what he was about to say...

Or

He sat, and I, nervous of what he was about to say...

Or are both wrong and there's a better way?

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    You have artistic liberty in phrasing if you are writing a sentence for effect, which means you can break or bend some grammar rules. However, I'd just write the sentence without the and. "He sat. I, nervous..."
    – SCMorfildur
    Aug 8, 2018 at 9:15
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    And so begins yet another discussion on the starting of sentences with conjunctions. The second quote is fine. The third does not mean what you want it to - removing the interjection makes it clear that it conveys that "He" is nervous and not "I".
    – J...
    Aug 8, 2018 at 14:11
  • And why would you think this is a good idea?
    – rubenvb
    Aug 8, 2018 at 14:51
  • @J...: Not sure what you mean by "interjection" - I can't see anything that would fit the normal definition here?
    – psmears
    Aug 8, 2018 at 15:11
  • @psmears The aside - , and I,. The coherence of the sentence is not dependent on dependent clauses like this. The third example reduces to He sat nervous of what he was about to say.... At very least it would need another comma to make it work, ie: He sat, and I, nervous about what he was about to say, [carried on, etc...].
    – J...
    Aug 8, 2018 at 15:54

6 Answers 6

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I use "And" at the beginning of sentences.

I think there are two cases, related but distinct: Dialogue, and Exposition.

Dialogue: Yes, people do this. A sentence is a thought. The next sentence is a new thought. But our brains keep working after we have finished a sentence, so sometimes we have an afterthought that is related, and we begin that related thought in speech with "And".

"And another thing, you mind your tongue with your grandma."

Since you are writing in first person, your exposition is in a halfway house between dialogue and exposition; you aim to give the impression the exposition is actually a character speaking. (Unlike 3rd person, where the narrator is often not thought of as a character in the story by readers).

Exposition: You can exploit this quirk of dialogue in prose, not because it is an afterthought, but to indicate that same "beat" of pause or silence between two actions.

David looked into Harry's eyes, with tears in his own. And pulled the trigger.

This connects the actions.

We could say "...into Harry's eyes. Then pulled the trigger." To me "Then" implies the first action is done, and I don't want to imply that, I want the reader to have the impression David is still looking into Harry's eyes when he pulled the trigger.

We could say, "...into Harry's eyes, and pulled the trigger." To me this seems too immediate; I want that beat of a period at the end of the sentence, to extend that eye contact a moment, and make the pulling of the trigger a more deliberate act.

We could say, "...into Harry's eyes. Then without breaking eye contact, he pulled the trigger." To me that is too flabby to have to explain this, and ruins the moment.

Beginning with "And" does the job I want, so the heck with the rules of grammar. We are writing to entertain, that takes priority over formality.

The (dramatic pause) is what is created; but also the word "And" connects "He sat." to your action; i.e. your action is in response to him sitting, and perhaps saying nothing (the impression I get from your sentence).

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    Note that it's only a myth that starting a sentence with a conjunction is ungrammatical. Many people may not do it, but there is no such actual guidance among most grammarians. It's similar to the false idea that you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition . . . Aug 8, 2018 at 13:42
  • @JasonBassford Okay. Good to know.
    – Amadeus
    Aug 8, 2018 at 13:54
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    Agree in general principal. But "with tears in his own... and pulled the trigger" is a more usual way of achieving that pacing.
    – Nathan
    Aug 8, 2018 at 15:09
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    @Nathan I don’t think it’s the same pacing. The full stop makes it more sudden to me, and thus more dynamic. To be fair the difference is slight and I can’t quite articulate how the two sentences differ. But they do. Aug 8, 2018 at 17:18
  • @JasonBassford - Agreed, and for what it's worth, I was told for the SAT/any aptitude test with grammar, that an answer starting with "and" is likely the correct one, since students are ("incorrectly") taught not to do that.
    – BruceWayne
    Aug 9, 2018 at 4:28
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Let's make this clear: There's no grammatical reason a sentence shouldn't begin with a conjunction. The only reason anyone's ever pretended otherwise is because those with a poor understanding of grammar often misuse such sentence-starting conjunctions in another respect. Consider the phrase

Alice liked the idea. And Bob.

The second sentence lacks a verb and is therefore grammatically incorrect, but results from not bothering to repeat previous content. In theory, the second sentence meant either

And Bob did too.

or

And she liked Bob too.

An easy way to discourage this kind of sentence fragmenting is to simply teach a blanket prohibition of starting sentences with conjunctions. (We've only discussed "and" as an example here, but you can invent your own problematic uses of but, not etc.) But this would be fine:

Alice liked the idea. And in this respect Bob was like her, and also like the idea.

But if you ever feel uncomfortable with examples such as this, just use a semicolon:

Alice liked the idea; and in this respect Bob was like her, and also like the idea.

We often summarise semicolons' role as being to glue together what could otherwise be separate sentences, but if you want to imagine how this breakdown would work you should also mentally delete any conjunction, which plays an analogous role. And of course, no-one would object to the grammar of this:

In this respect Bob was like her, and also like the idea.

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  • "The second sentence lacks a verb and is therefore grammatically correct" Did a 'not' get dropped? Aug 8, 2018 at 15:18
  • @Accumulation I've added in-.
    – J.G.
    Aug 8, 2018 at 15:23
  • You have one like which should be a liked. You also have one superfluous comma in any conjunction, which plays an analogous role. I would also put a comma both sides of the interjection of course. These do not add up to enough changes for me to suggest an edit myself.
    – TRiG
    Aug 8, 2018 at 21:17
  • @TRIG I disagree with all those suggestions.
    – J.G.
    Aug 8, 2018 at 21:24
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    I was misreading the liked one. But the comma after conjunction makes the following phrase appear to be descriptive, not restrictive.
    – TRiG
    Aug 8, 2018 at 21:28
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"And" is a conjunction. It indicates a relationship between two ideas. The two ideas that it joins may be expressed as phrases or they may be expressed as sentences. Anyone who raises an objection to starting a sentence with a conjunction is putting language in far too small a box.

This business of putting language in too small a box is all too common. We want a mechanical explanation of how language works. But no one has so far come up with a mechanical explanation of language that actually fits how the language is used. But this does not stop people from trying to confine the use of language to the inadequate set of mechanical principles they have devised for it. Anything in language that they can't explain, in other words, the want to forbid. They make a Procrustean bed for language.

And that is a problem, because language unfettered by these inadequate rules is a thing of grace and economy. The language that rises from the Procrustean bed of the prescriptivists is an awkward thing, often clunky, often verbose, often hard to get your tongue around. And yes, this paragraph started with "and", because it expresses a thought the continues from the previous paragraph.

But let us pause to examine the role of conjunctions in more depth. Conjunctions don't actually add information to a passage. Rather, they indicate the direction that a passage is going to take. Think of them like the turn signal in your car. It does not actually change the direction of travel. It simply indicates to other motorists which way you intend to turn. The difference between "but" and "and" is simply that the former signals a change of direction in the argument, and the latter signal a continuation in the same direction. Thus warned, the reader is not taken by surprise and does not have to stop and go back and catch the thread of the argument again.

And so, starting a sentence, or even a paragraph, with "and" is a perfectly normal part of the ergonomics of language. You should feel entirely free to use it when it flows naturally and serves your meaning and intent the best.

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Starting a sentence of dialogue with an "and" can be quite effective, because people use "and" at the start of spoken sentences quite often. Using it in general prose, even when it's a private thought is much trickier, I would write it something like this:

He sat... and I, nervous of what he was about to say, ...

But I'm not writing it you are, so the important thing is to create a sentence structure that says, to you, what you want the sentence to convey. You can edit it later if you find it doesn't work for others but you need to understand the sentence to work with it in the greater narrative so use something you understand while you're drafting.

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  • Upvoted so the question and every answer all score 3.
    – J.G.
    Aug 8, 2018 at 14:17
  • @J.G. I like your style, doubly so as 3 is a prime number.
    – Ash
    Aug 8, 2018 at 14:18
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Starting sentences with the word 'and' is a tricky one. It's generally to be avoided, but like all rules of writing, they exist to be purposefully broken. Every author has their own take on when and when not to use 'and' to start a sentence.

My personal usage of it is when I wish to convey a feeling of interrupted thoughts or afterthoughts in the narration. As in:

Everyone was here; Bob, Gilbert, Terry and Wilma. And Boris, hanging at the back as always.

I certainly think it's more forgivable in non-omniscient narration and dialogue, where such staccato and unstructured thought/speech processes are likely to happen.

In the case you've written above, I wouldn't start the sentence with 'and', being honest. I'd write it as:

He sat, I shifted. He was going to say something terrible, it was in the air.

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    “It's generally to be avoided” — But why? I’ve never heard a reason except personal preference for it. Aug 8, 2018 at 14:39
  • I know it's not to do with grammar. I personally thinks it looks disjointed and staccato, but yeah, there's certainly no hard rule against it.
    – Matthew Dave
    Aug 8, 2018 at 14:42
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Ignoring all the rules, what matters is whether you can communicate the thought in a way that will be "accepted" or enjoyed by the reader. Some writers write for the readers, and others write for the writers, and both are ok, but you need to consider your audience. Whenever you wonder whether you're breaking a rule, ignore the rule, and instead think about whether the effect will be successful on your audience.

All that said, starting a sentence with "and" may seem awkward, but if you're writing prose, most readers "allow" you some poetic license w/r/t their patience.

Anyway, an alternative is to use the em dash:

He sat — and I, nervous of what he was about to say, blah blah blah

Or the elipses:

He sat … and I, nervous of what he was about to say, blah blah blah

Or the semicolon (though this does technically break the "don't start with and" 'rule'):

He sat; and I, nervous of what he was about to say, blah blah blah

In any of these scenarios, I suspect removing the 'and' actually improves the cadence and effect.

He sat — I, nervous of what he was about to say, blah blah blah

He sat … I, nervous of what he was about to say, blah blah blah

He sat; I, nervous of what he was about to say, blah blah blah

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    There is no "don't start with 'and'" rule. Starting with conjunctions and ending with prepositions can be perfectly valid English. The rules that say not to are just plain wrong - repeated for years by people who repeated them only because they had them repeated for years to them.
    – J...
    Aug 8, 2018 at 16:22
  • @J..., honestly, whether the 'rule' exists or not really is irrelevant. I reject the 'rule', but I also accept that it is perceived to exist by many. Regardless, I'm addressing the idea that whether a rule exists or not is secondary when writing for effect, what matters is the communication and how it will be received by the audience. If the audience is full of prescriptivists, then write accordingly. If your audience perceives a nonexistent rule to exist, then you need to be deliberate when you break a 'rule' or convention. Otherwise, write to communicate, to convey, to envelope the reader.
    – K_foxer9
    Aug 8, 2018 at 16:32

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