Start Sentences With Any Word You Want!

This week two people who subscribe to my e-newsletter emailed me to question a word I had used to start a sentence. One individual was polite; the other was not.

The polite individual, who works as a field representative for an insurance company, wrote:

Dear Lynn,

It has always been taught to me that a sentence should not begin with "I." Several of your examples break this rule. Can you explain this to me?

Thank you and have a great day.

Sincerely,

Doug

I wrote to Doug directly, happy to relieve him of the unfortunate "rule" that has contorted his writing. It is perfectly appropriate for him to write "I was always taught" rather than "It has always been taught to me."

Beginning sentences with "I" will help Doug connect with his readers, with sentences such as "I will be handling your claim" and "I will call you when have I the information."

The second individual, whom I will call Mike, did not include anything about himself. His message said only this:

Is your sentence "To stop receiving . . . " grammatically incorrect or is it simply a prime example of poor sentence structure?

This is the sentence to which Mike was referring: "To stop receiving this newsletter, see the simple instructions at the end of this email."

Annoyed by Mike's abruptness and not wanting to spend time composing a reply, I answered his question with one word: "Neither."

I received this response from him:

I was always taught and I taught my university students that using a preposition to start or end a sentence is a very poor idea.

Drat! How frustrating it is to learn of a university instructor who unwittingly spreads misinformation about writing.

Let's set the record straight now: It is completely acceptable to start a sentence with any word, including a preposition.

It is also acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition. For more about prepositions at the end of sentences, read my post "Rules From Grade School."

Speaking of first words again, my feature article this month in Better Writing at Work is "How to Write the Opening Sentence." Subscribe for free.

Are you aware of any non-rules we should free writers of? I would love to read them and share them with others here.

Lynn
Syntax Training

25 COMMENTS

  1. Great post! I have a friend who refuses not only to write sentences ending in prepositions, but to speak them as well. I often cringe at the overly formal-sounding, elaborate sentences she contrives in order to avoid ending with a preposition – not to mention it seems like a great deal of work! I would of course never presume to address the subject with her, but I am happy to know that I am not wrong in thinking that it sounds and looks a bit strange to go to such lengths to satisfy the “rule.”

  2. Thank you for your instructions! It is refreshing to know that my gut feelings have always been correct and I have not been breaking rules!

    I also believed the above nonsense and now I am ‘free’.

  3. I have never heard the myth about not starting a sentence with “I,” and, while I’ve heard “don’t-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition” rule, the one about not starting a sentence with one is new to me.

    I did have a psych prof in college who took points off if a student started a sentence with “however.” As a writing teacher, I don’t perpetuate the “however” myth, but I do warn my students that some of their readers might, and that they should probably avoid it in more formal writing.

  4. Hi, Stephanie. Thanks for telling us about your friend. I can understand your hesitancy to speak with her about the “rule.” At the same time, it would be terrific if you could free her from having to force her thoughts into awkward structures.

    Would it make sense to start a conversation by praising her for the high value she places on correct language? Then you might share excerpts from up-to-date style manuals, showing her the latest thinking on the preposition rule.

    Lynn

  5. Hi, Nina. I use the same approach with my students in business writing classes. Sometimes they mention that their managers will not permit them to write a particular way–for example, to begin a sentence with “however.” I approach the problem as the challenge of writing for the reader. When their manager is their reader, they must meet that reader’s needs.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Lynn

  6. Too bad for Mr. Mike. I guess he isn’t aware that good manners trumps good grammar. I guess he also doesn’t like to read “I love you”.

  7. Lynn,

    In college, I had a lab instructor who would not allow us to use the word “this” in our lab reports. Imagine the contortions that rule brought about! He had a rationale, but it made no sense to me at the time. (Or now.)

    Marcia Yudkin

  8. Yikes, Marcia. That wouild be a difficult rule to follow!

    In my writing classes I often ask writers “This what?” when they use “This” at the beginning of a sentence, followed by a verb, and the antecedent is not clear. But banning “this” altogether? I wonder what he was thinking.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Lynn

  9. Lynn,

    I was taught not to start a sentence with the word “but.” But, according to your post this sentence is correct. Are there times that it is more acceptable than others to start a sentence with “but?”

    Kathryn

  10. Excellent post! I, too, was taught in grammar school about not placing prepositions at the end of sentences. To this day I pause before doing so, but most time follow through. Glad to know it’s acceptable now. And, I was taught to never start a sentence with ‘And’. I assume this would be OK too? Because I’ve forgone that ‘rule’ a lot as well 🙂

  11. Most of my writing, and the writing I review, is technical writing that will be used in administrative legal proceedings. I never allow a document out the door with the word “this” alone. We can use “this” but it must be this “something” – this situation, this comparison, this decision. In technical documents, it is very easy for someone to, on purpose or by accident, misunderstand what “this” refers to. We are subject to discovery regarding our writing as well as testimony taking different positions and the use of the word “this” without clarity regarding what it refers to is like asking for more work. I tend to follow this rule in all of my professional writing. Based on my experiences, I find the use of “this” to be a sloppy and lazy excuse to communicate without precision.

    Thanks for the great column. I appreciate the good business writing food for thought.

  12. I completely disagree with your ridiculous statement that ending a sentence with a preposition is acceptable. In what lower class version of English is it acceptable?

    If one is forced to avoid ending a sentence with prepositions, one is also forced to write a better sentence.

    It saddens me that you are writing a blog about writing well, when it is clear that you do not promote the highest standards of English composition.

  13. Bravo, Lynn. I (not it, and, or but) have the greatest respect for grammar and sentence structure, which is why I follow your excellent blog. However, (oh no, I started a sentence with However :-)) the obsessive need for rules or “I’m right – you’re wrong” responses are tiring – in my humble opinion.

    What I have learned, however, is that if you ever want a lively discussion, write a post about grammar. 🙂

  14. Veracity, you have strong feelings against the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence. But simply having a strong personal opinion does not make it a business writing standard.

    I would appreciate it if you would cite one or more writing style guides published in this century that agree with you. All the highly respected guides on my bookshelf support my position.

    Lynn

  15. Hi, Cathy. You are correct: Stepping on an old “sacred cow” rule of writing guarantees a lively discussion.

    My goal is to free people of rules that make no sense for business writing, that haven’t been followed in a hundred years, or that never were rules to begin with–just things instructors mistakenly promoted.

    I always appreciate your comments and your sanity.

    Lynn

  16. Lynn:

    Nothing like knowing you will face discovery or live cross examination on the stand to make you care about every word you write. I have a file I keep with discovery questions we have received that result from unclear writing to show new witnesses so they will take my writing suggestions to heart.

    p.s. A comment on a blog does not show my usual writing skills – I don’t have time for my usual review, re-write, third party review, consult style manual pre-document release process.

  17. How is it possible to never start sentences with “I”? Can anyone provide some examples here? How would you express things like, “I am sorry for the inconvenience this has caused you” or “I will call you at 10 AM”?

    *I* am thoroughly confused! 😉

  18. Hi, Lisa. Although sometimes clumsy, it is possible to write without starting sentences with “I.”

    Here are revisions of your examples:

    “Sorry for the inconvenience this has caused you.”

    “Expect a call from me at 10 a.m.”

    “It seems I am thoroughly confused.”

    Those examples are not awkward, not like Doug’s “It has always been taught to me.”

    Thanks for asking a question others may have wondered about.

    Lynn

  19. Thank you, Lynn, for highlighting the importance of manners when dealing with grammatical issues. I teach a linguistics-based college grammar course and strive to demonstrate to my students that knowing grammar and usage rules does not mean we have free license to rudely correct others.

    Mike’s email is particularly ironic, given that the phrase “to stop receiving” does not contain a preposition. The word “to” in that phrase is an infinitive marker introducing the verb “stop.” The phrase is a non-finite infinitive verb phrase, a construction often free to float around in a sentence, as in “See the simple instructions at the end of this email to stop receiving this newsletter.”

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