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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe


The arrival of Independence Day has reminded me of the worst writing advice I ever got. Bear with me as I explain the connection.


Long, long ago, when I was a winsome fifth-grader, my teachers issued our class with a list of words with which we were Not Allowed to start a written sentence. Alas, I no longer have this ludicrous document, but as far as I can remember, the forbidden syllables included “because,” “when,” “and,” “but,” “however,” “there is,” and similar members of that murky preposition/adverb/conjunction category.


No doubt the intent here was good, if misguided: My teachers had probably noticed that when ten-year-olds start off a sentence with, say, “because,” they often neglect to make what follows into a grammatically complete proposition. Rather than going to the trouble of teaching us grammar, my teachers decided instead to shoot the messenger-words.


My parents were literary types, and they greeted this news from school with the derision it deserved, entertaining themselves by coming up with famous examples of sentences that violated the ban: --Emily Dickinson: “Because I could not stop for death. . .” --Shakespeare: “There is a tide in the affairs of men. . .” --Thomas Jefferson: “When in the course of human events. . .”


This last is, of course, the opening line of the Declaration of Independence, which we, or at least I, tend to think about every July 4. QED.


This year, however, my annual rumination on why it’s perfectly fine to start a sentence with “when” and its cousins left me wondering how Jane Austen’s prose would have fared under the scrutiny of my fifth-grade teachers. How early in each novel did Austen pen a sentence starting with a word they would likely have found suspect?


The answer is: pretty early, even if, for the purposes of this exercise, we don’t treat clauses linked by semi-colons as separate sentences. So here’s what I’ve got (with selections provided, in some cases, just until the next semi-colon):

* Northanger Abbey: “Indeed she had no taste for a garden.” (sentence #10)

* Emma: “Between them it was more the intimacy of sisters.” (#5)

* Sense and Sensibility: “But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his home.” (#4) * Mansfield Park: “But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.” (#4) * Pride and Prejudice: “However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.” (#2) * Persuasion: “Precisely such had the paragraph originally stood from the printer's hands.” (#2)


It’s no surprise that all these rule-breaking Austenian sentences are pretty darn good and, in some cases—looking at you, MP and P&P!—stone-cold genius. If you’re as fine a writer as Jane Austen, you can do whatever you want. And if you’re not, a set of hard-and-fast rules won’t save you.


As I recall, my fifth-grade teachers abandoned their silly word-ban pretty quickly, perhaps in the face of parental protest. (A lot of college professors sent their kids to my elementary school.) But on July 4, I like to commemorate its brief reign, if only by writing a sentence or two that breaks the rules. Just one more kind of independence to celebrate.


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