As writers, we want to mix up our sentence structures—it makes our writing livelier and more interesting than if every sentence starts the same way. But we have to watch out for two common pitfalls with sentence construction: starting sentences with an initial conjunction or an initial –ING verb.
Initial conjunctions are when you start your sentences with a conjunction, such as And, But, Or, For, So, Yet, or Because. While modern language rules say it’s perfectly acceptable to start with an initial conjunction, doing it too frequently can quickly become annoying to the reader. The Wizard helps you determine how often you’re using those initial conjunctions.
Initial –ING verbs are sentences that start with an –ING, such as “Lifting the spoon to my lips, I thought about the day ahead.” Using this structure too often can be distracting to the reader, and many writers use it incorrectly.
Initial conjunctions in your manuscript
Here’s a tip that might surprise you: It’s grammatically acceptable to start your sentence with a conjunction—you know, words like but, so, yet, or, nor, for, and because.
That’s right: Your junior-year English teacher was wrong.
Starting with a conjunction is technically correct. The old rules of not starting with a conjunction are outdated, and modern language finds this approach perfectly acceptable.
However, it can get annoying if you do it too frequently, so it’s still something to do sparingly. And that’s why the AutoCrit helps you see how often you’re doing it. If too many sentences start with a conjunction, your prose will quickly grate on your reader like nails on a chalkboard.
But Sammy wasn’t about to rush home. So what if he was late? And so what if Jennifer was angry? Because the truth was, he was a little sick of Jennifer. So tired of her nagging. He didn’t want to hear about her annoying boss. Or listen to that cheesy pop music she loved. Or spend his nights watching bad reality TV because she just had to find out who got voted off the island.
Grrrr. See how fast it gets annoying?
The thing about starting with a conjunction is that in most cases, the conjunction adds nothing. It can easily be dropped to make the prose tighter:
Sammy wasn’t going to rush. So what if he was late and Jennifer was angry? The truth was, he was a little sick of Jennifer and tired of her nagging.
The exception to the rule
Repeatedly starting with a conjunction can work, as long as you want that sentence or conjunction to stand out. For instance, if you have a neurotic character in your book, consider starting many of her thoughts with but and and to highlight her perpetual state of anxiety. Here’s what that would look like:
Jane was tempted to skip work and spend the morning at the beach. But what if someone found out? And told her boss? And what if she got sunburned—how would she hide that at work tomorrow? But then, she could wear sunscreen and stay under the umbrella. But what would be the point of going to the beach at all if she couldn’t enjoy the sun? And hadn’t she promised herself she would try to have more fun?
So how many initial conjunctions are too many? Thankfully, the AutoCrit Overused Words Report is there to help you.
The bottom line
It is perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction—once in a while. As with all things in life, just don’t do it so much it becomes annoying.
Initial –ING verbs in your manuscript
Starting a sentence with an –ING verb can be a great way to vary your sentence structure. But it can also be a tricky little pitfall if used too much or used incorrectly.
Pitfall #1: Using it too often
Let’s face it: It’s boring to start every sentence the same way. So it’s a good idea to mix up your sentence structures and occasionally start with an –ING verb: “Walking down the hall, I caught sight of a shadow disappearing around the corner.”
But if you use this structure too often, it quickly can become distracting and annoying to the reader:
Walking down the hall, I caught sight of a shadow disappearing around the corner. Jumping in surprise, I wondered what I had seen. Remembering the rumors about a ghost, I hurried forward despite my fear.
The good news is, it’s an easy fix:
Walking down the hall, I caught sight of a shadow disappearing around the corner. Startled, I wondered what I had seen. I remembered hearing rumors about a ghost. Despite my fear, I hurried forward.
AutoCrit will show you how often you use this structure. (Aww, thanks, AutoCrit!)
Pitfall #2: Using it incorrectly
The second pitfall is a tad trickier. Grammatically, the initial -ING sentence structure is known as a dependent clause, which means that phrase depends on the rest of the sentence to make sense and express a complete thought. So when you use an initial –ING, the action you describe in the first part of the sentence must be something that can be done at the same time as the action you describe later in the sentence.
Take a look at our example from above:
Walking down the hall, I caught sight of a shadow disappearing around the corner.
This works because a person could walk down the hall AND see something ahead.
But here’s one that doesn't work:
Opening the door, I walked into a spacious ballroom.
It’s physically impossible to open a door AND walk into a room at the exact same time. So this needs to be rephrased.
Here’s another example of a phrase that doesn't work:
Opening the ketchup bottle, he poured it on the burger.
It’s simply not possible, and it tells the reader your writing needs a tad more polish.
See, I told you it was tricky!
As you can imagine, writers often slip up with strategy. But don’t let my words of caution stop you from using this structure —when done correctly, it can be quite effective. Just make sure you don’t overdo it, and that each instance is used correctly.
The bottom line
Starting with –ING verbs can be an effective way to spice up your sentence structures—but only if they're used correctly and sparingly. Tread lightly.
Related areas to look for in your manuscript
If AutoCrit shows that you have a tendency to start your sentences with an initial –ING verb or rely too much on initial conjunctions, you may need to take a closer look at your sentence structures throughout your manuscript. Sometimes we fall into the same patterns as we write—always starting with an initial conjunction, or always starting with a dependent clause, or always writing short, choppy sentences. Good writing has a rhythm, and that rhythm only works if sentences vary in length and style.
You can check this on your own—or you can get help from AutoCrit. The Sentence Variation Analysis visually represents the length of each sentence in your manuscript. It’s a quick and easy way to “see” the variation and rhythm of your prose. And the Initial Pronoun and Names Analysis helps you see where you may be starting too many of your sentences with a pronoun or a character’s name.
Now that’s magic.