But, Seriously

Anyone who reads college papers — and who pays attention to the punctuation therein — will recognize a fairly recent trend of students following a sentence-opening conjunction with a comma. As in: “But, that’s incorrect!”

I will immediately and quickly address the “gross canard” (Garner’s Modern American English) that starting a sentence with But, And, or any other conjunction is problematic. Every stylebook I’ve ever seen agrees it is perfectly kosher; the only mystery is how so many middle-school English teachers got the idea that it isn’t.

But that comma is seriously funky. Now, I’m not talking about cases where the conjunction is followed by a parenthetical phrase or clause or some other nonessential element. There a comma can (but doesn’t always have to) be used:

  • But, having read several books on the subject, I have to disagree.
  • And, furthermore, you are a liar.
  • So, when we arrive tomorrow, we’ll be ready for lunch.

The thing my students do is place a comma between the sentence-opening conjunction and the subject of the sentence. This appears to be a new thing. Garner gives 13 examples of fine authors using sentence-starting But; none is followed by a comma. Seeking a broader sample, I turned to the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), which advertises 400 million words of text from 1810 until 2009, and searched for initial “But” followed by comma and noun. There came up only a handful of examples, decade by decade, going back to the ’30s, when there are none:

  • “But, problems can pop up.” —Chicago Tribune, 2002
  • “But, acclaim and compliments outweighed criticisms by a huge margin.” —Popular Mechanics, 2001
  • “But, women can like Geraldine, men can like Geraldine, everyone can like Geraldine.” —Jet, 1991
  • “But, protein level is still used and is a good guide for meeting amino acid needs.” —Horse Feeding and Nutrition (book), 1991
  • “But, hydrogen and oxygen are not in the proportion as they are present in water.”—Farm Animal Management (New Delhi), 1976
  • “But, committee spokesmen report the committee is aiming to use that surplus in a way to prevent the Governor from applying it to new projects adding substantially to the permanent cost of state government.” —Christian Science Monitor, 1957:

I noticed students starting to make this move about 10 years ago. I can see why they did and do it. Because they tend not to read very much edited prose, they’re unfamiliar with the rules of punctuation, and rely instead on sound. They “hear” a pause after the conjunction, so they slip in a comma.

And, though they’re unlikely aware of it, there is also sound logic behind the trend. A sentence starting with a conjunction, fine and dandy though it may be in literary terms, is on some level a sentence fragment. (Maybe that’s the source of the schoolmasters’ enmity.) “And I ate lunch”: How would you diagram the And? The only way to de-fragment it is to treat the And not as a conjunction but as a sentence adverb, like furthermore or however. And a sentence adverb is followed by a comma.

In any case, the usage has been finding its way into print. Here are some examples I’ve recently collected, including one from The New York Times (upper left):

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 5.22.16 PM

Even Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape and now master-of-the-universe venture capitalist, has been doing it. Here is one of his tweets, as quoted in The New Yorker: “Or, maybe Google has a larger plan for automating the home.”

I predict this trend will itself master the universe. Or, at least will keep getting more popular.


Correction (7/20/2015, 5:24 p.m.): The founder of Netscape is, of course, Marc Andreessen, not Marc Andreeson; this post has been updated to reflect that. Thanks to our digital editor Ken Sands for pointing that out.

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