May 18, 2021
“When you start a sentence with ‘but’, you negate everything you said before,” the client told me. I was ready to push back. After all, we always say write like you speak and that’s how we talk in real life. It feels natural and human.
I’ve also spent years telling people it’s OK to start a sentence with conjunctions like ‘and’ or ‘but’, no matter what your high school teacher told you. Every writer since the Book of Genesis has done so.
Plus, sometimes you do want to stop your reader with a big fat sign that says; wait a minute, there’s another side to this story.
And then I thought again. She wasn’t against starting sentences with conjunctions. She just wanted to make sure we told a compelling and persuasive story. No ifs… or buts.
(See what I did there? I could have written, ‘But then I thought again’. I’ve decided to build the story, not contradict it.)
I’m sure there are times where I have used ‘but’ (or its more bossy cousin, ‘however’) when I could have used ‘and’. Or ‘so’. Or… maybe nothing at all, and just got to the point.
Let’s think about it from the reader’s point of view. What does a ‘but’ feel like? Is it even-handed, or wishy-washy? Is it the copywriting equivalent of that great Australian response, ‘yeah nah’?
Kingsley Amis said using both words – and or but – “can give unimprovably early warning of the sort of thing that is to follow.” ‘And’ indicates the next sentence will reinforce what you just said. ‘But’ lets the reader know you’re about to suggest an alternative perspective.
So for me, it probably comes back to your tone of voice. If you’re bold, confident, purposeful, then building your arguments with a bevy of ‘ands’ could carry people on your crusade. If you’re all friendly and conversational, a few ‘buts’ will show you’re empathetic and willing to consider both sides of the story. If that’s the case, avoid veering down the more formal path of ‘nevertheless’.
And by all means feel free to use both regardless – just don’t overdo it.