A Good Beginning for Every Sentence in Academic & Scientific Writing
The wording at the beginning of English sentences in scholarly prose should be both precise and complete, and certain elements should not be used in that position. Numerals, for instance, must be avoided, so any number at the beginning of a sentence should be written out in words. If writing the number out would be long and cumbersome, the sentence should be reworded to avoid using the number first. Many abbreviations must also be avoided at the beginning of sentences, although acronyms and initialisms are usually acceptable. In addition, sentences should not begin with conjunctions such as ‘and,’ ‘or,’ ‘but’ and ‘so,’ although the occasional lapse in this regard, even in formal writing, is tolerated in most cases as long as the sentence does not begin a paragraph, the meaning is clear and the rhythm of the prose is effective.
Keep in mind that when a descriptive phrase (such as ‘At the park’ or ‘In 1913’) is used at the beginning of a sentence, it applies to everything that follows until the subject changes or is restated. In the sentence ‘In 1913 he painted his first watercolour and began to work with oils in 1918,’ for instance, the date 1913 applies incorrectly to ‘began’ as well as correctly to ‘painted,’ so rewording is necessary. Either ‘He painted his first watercolour in 1913 and began to work with oils in 1918’ or ‘In 1913 he painted his first watercolour and in 1918 he began to work with oils’ would be more accurate and better English.
Dangling participles are often problematic at the beginning of sentences, though they can turn up anywhere in a sentence. A dangling participle occurs when a participle or participial phrase is followed by a word other than the subject it modifies, as it is in ‘Having found the right food at last, the diabetic dog was fed.’ It is clear to a thinking reader familiar with English that the person feeding the dog is the one who ‘found the right food,’ but the sentence does not actually say this. It says that ‘the diabetic dog’ was the one who ‘found the right food’ because the dog is the subject that appears immediately after the participial phrase. This sentence should be reworded so that its syntax reflects reality: ‘Having found the right food at last, she fed the diabetic dog.’
Other kinds of dependent clauses that tend to appear at the beginning of sentences can present problems as well, particularly when they are mistakenly used as independent clauses or full sentences. Although a dependent clause contains a subject and a verb (as the opening clause of this sentence does), it does not express a complete thought; instead, it often begins with a dependent marker word (such as ‘after,’ ‘when,’ ‘if,’ ‘because’ and ‘although’) that leaves the reader waiting for the rest of the thought: ‘After he drafted his paper’ and ‘Because she is afraid of fireworks’ are good examples. For this reason, a dependent clause cannot be a complete sentence, but should be either followed by a comma and an independent clause that does complete the thought, or preceded by an independent clause and (if necessary) a comma: ‘After he drafted his paper, he had it checked by a professional proofreader’ or ‘We left our dog at home because she is afraid of fireworks.’
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