Battling the but-comma
I’m the scourge of the but-comma. I delete it almost every time I see it.
But others are slavishly devoted to it.
Or as they might write:
But, others are slavishly devoted to it.
Why? What earthly good does that but-comma do? No good, that’s what. It slows readers down unnecessarily. And while most readers can jump the low hurdle, why make them?
When a conjunction is used to begin a sentence, it rarely needs to be followed by a comma.
But some people like the but-comma. (But, some people like the but-comma.)
And some people use it. (And, some people use it.)
So there. (So, there.)
No. Not so there. When I’m the copy editor, I delete that pesky but-comma and its puny conjunctive cousins, the and-comma and the so-comma. You should do the same.
The exception—There’s always an exception, isn’t there?—is when the comma is grammatically necessary because of what follows. Here’s an example:
But, as Evans learned by reading old court records, only a few of the arrests led to convictions.
“But wait!” I hear some of you thinking. “Isn’t it wrong to start a sentence with ‘but,’ ‘and’ or ‘so’ anyway? That’s what I was taught.”
Yeah, me too. I remember wrestling with that prohibition as I sweated out my high school term papers.
Journalism school smacked it out of me in the first month. I’ve happily started sentences with “and” and “but” ever since.
It’s just not wrong. Don’t believe me? Believe Garner’s Modern American Usage, the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook, which agree that starting a sentence with “and,” “but” or another conjunction is fine.
I’ll let Garner have the last word:
“It is a gross canard that beginning a sentence with but is stylistically slipshod. In fact, doing so is highly desirable in any number of contexts, as countless stylebooks have said.”