Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

"However" You Want: Who's On First?

A Florida correspondent writes:

My boss is obsessed with Strunk & White, and so tells me that I can never start a sentence with "however" when using it to mean "nevertheless." I disagree with him and say that I can start a sentence with "however" when I mean "nevertheless" if I put a comma after the "however." However (lol), he, as well as many I have seen, misinterpret Strunk & White and just put commas around "however" without regard to where the "however" is placed in the sentence. For example, instead of writing:

"I'll go to the store. If, however, you want me to buy something, I'll need your credit card."

he'll write:

"I'll go to the store, however, if you want me to buy something, I'll need your credit card."

The former is correct according to Strunk & White. The latter is incorrect according to Strunk & White, but that's what my boss does under the guise of abiding by Strunk & White. I also think that the following is correct (with which Strunk & White and my boss disagree):

"I'll go to the store. However, if you want me to buy something, I'll need your credit card."

Well, to start with, thanks for writing most of this column for me. Second, your boss (and you) must have a very old copy of Strunk & White. So old, in fact, that it's just Strunk. You both need to modernize.

In the first edition of The Elements of Style, in 1918, William Strunk Jr. wrote of "however": "In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause."

However, in the 1959 edition, when E.B. White became involved and Strunk had decamped to the great grammar gathering in the sky, the advice had softened: "Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is nevertheless. The word usually serves better when not in first position." The ban had become an advisory.

Nevertheless, few usage guides advise against that any more. The Chicago Manual of Style notes: "However has been used as a conjunction since the fourteenth century. Like other conjunctions, it can be used at the beginning of a sentence. But however is more ponderous and has less impact than the simple but." Garner's Modern American Usage says that using "however" at the beginning of a sentence "isn't a grammatical error; it's merely a stylistic lapse, the word But or Yet ordinarily being much preferable." Garner's also says the usage is "ponderous."

So it's not a "never." It's a "you can, if your boss will let you."

Strunk and White, together or separately, don't specifically discuss whether "however" should always be surrounded by commas, but when they use "however" in midsentence to mean "nevertheless," "however" is bracketed by commas, as in "It is, however, correct to say …"

What your boss is doing, though, is hypercorrection, which often makes things wrong: He follows the "rule" without noting its effect on the rest of the sentence. When he writes "I'll go to the store, however, if you want me to buy something, I'll need your credit card," he's creating a comma splice. He either needs to put a semicolon or a period before his "however." If he puts in the period and wants to avoid offending Strunk or White, he needs to listen to you. Your sentences are correct.

However, the overall lesson here is that, as useful as Strunk and White is (or are), it's important to recognize that language changes, and has changed a lot even since White joined Strunk. Some battles are lost, however much you want to win them.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday January 8th 2013, 3:45 AM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
My "rate this article" button is not working so here's a comment instead. This came up in my line of work (technical writing) the other day, and many times in the past as well. I am pleased (and relieved) to be able to say I have been getting it right, but nice to have confirmation. Thanks!
Tuesday January 8th 2013, 8:50 AM
Comment by: brindle (Canada)
The games we have introduced and continue to play with language are quite fascinating.
Tuesday January 8th 2013, 9:44 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
I just got my morning chuckles.
Tuesday January 8th 2013, 10:19 AM
Comment by: david P. (Houston, TX)
Merrill, I think I have found a home away from home! For quite some time now, I sport the gradually acquired nickname of "Grammar Police". I am considered the most knowledgeable amongst my peers, even though I suspect already you might find something[s] grammatically wrong with this paragraph! Regarding content: I like to choose my words to keep the concepts concise and precise, and flowing forward quickly. Yet, as particular as I get about grammar, I do not like tucking a period inside quotes unless the quotes are enclosing a full sentence. I also tend to use the semicolon a lot, often before the word "however"; or to keep ideas nearby one another like the continuation of this semicolon topic. You see, I have my rules, and generally I am considered effective and poignant in my writing; yet the real maddening topics lie in the use/misuse of words that are intended to convey ideas that are lost - once you actually know the meaning of the words! Example: "I was laying down on the couch when you called." These things are driving me mad! <== Oh, for so so so long now I cannot remember when someone used the word "angry", but instead "mad" seems to be literally ALWAYS used. [I submit to you that there is a notable distinction between the two that seems to just get lost in daily conversation.] Also, "Him and Sally called the other day and said they are doing fine." [driving me cra-a-azy]. Also, "There's a lot of problems with the printers on the 3rd floor." Also, [in writing] - "I should of seen it coming." Now just a few minutes ago I got a telemarketing call and they told me, "If you and her would like to send a donation today..." Merrill - it is as if I cannot *not* hear when people say those things - like a human syntax machine. I do not claim to be 100% correct 100% of the time, but I am saying I hear this stuff all.the.time - basic stuff, and it pangs me that our America continues to sound like we do not know what we're talking about. Merrill, help me understand - is there something wrong with me, or is it America? How do you handle the common misuse of such simple grammatical errors in your daily life? I look forward to hearing back from you! Additionally, please do not hesitate to give me your opinion of my writing style; I may annoy my friends by correcting them sometimes, but I grew up in that environment and desire to hear the criticism of others who think about what they say and write.
Tuesday January 8th 2013, 12:30 PM
Comment by: douggood5@gmail.com (Liberty Hill, TX)
Was this a deliberate typo?

If he puts in the period and wants to avoid offending Stunk ...

[Not deliberate, and now fixed! —Ed.]
Thursday January 10th 2013, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I can spend an hour or more flipping "however," "but," and "yet" in and out of the opening spot of a sentence, and whatever I end up with often doesn't satisfy me. I know no rules on the subject, but I do have a prejudice against using "but" as a sentence's first word. It's fine for speech, but seems too informal for print. "Yet" sounds better as an opener, being a tad more formal.

I often drop the "however," "but," "yet" entirely, because on rewriting I see that I don't need to underline the logical, "pro...con" progress of my thought.

One final point: why does "however" mean what it means? To me it's a word like "nevertheless": I know what it means, but I don't know why.

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