A Room of One's Own

by Virginia Woolf

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Woolf opens her essay "A Room of One's Own" with the conjunction “But.” Why does she do this? What is the effect? Is this considered good use of English writing conventions?

Quick answer:

Woolf opens her essay with the conjunction "but" to anticipate objections to her essay's theme: the relationship between a room of one's own and women's fiction. Opening with "but" conveys the idea that readers are coming into the middle of a conversation. It also signals that the topic of women and fiction is more complex than it seems. "But" is not a conventionally "good" word with which to begin an essay. Woolf is deliberately pushing boundaries.

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Woolf's long essay opens as follows:

But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?

By opening with "but" and a question Woolf imagines being asked, she addresses from the start the theme of her essay: the connection between women's fiction and a room of one's own. She is anticipating objections. On the surface it looks as if the two topics have nothing to do with each other. Why would we be interested in hearing about rooms when we came to a women's college to hear a talk about women's fiction?

The effect of this is, first, to give us the feeling of "media res," or starting in the middle. It is as if we are entering into a conversation that has already begun. This catches our attention—we always hate to miss the beginning of something. It also speaks to the fact that the "problem" of women and fiction has been an ongoing conversation.

Further, "but" is a complicating word—it adds the assumption of argument to a situation. We think a problem is simple, but then comes the "but." Woolf uses not one but three "buts" in the first six sentences of her essay. This signals to us that relating women and fiction is not simple. It signals that Woolf is going to lead us on a circuitous route through this essay—"buts" are always detours—and ask us to be patient as we meander with her.

Though conventions of good English have loosened considerably since Woolf's time, "but" is not, strictly speaking, the way you begin an essay. And it would have been less acceptable in the late 1920s than now. That, too, alerts us that this will be an essay that pushes boundaries.

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