Contempaory Language Debate: However at the Beginning of a Sentence

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Links in this essay will take you to information about the usage experts and their work. Numbers in parentheses are page references in the sources.

 

however at the beginning of a sentence

 

Most usage experts think it's perfectly fine to begin a sentence with the conjunctive adverb however (meaning "nevertheless"). But try telling that to those who grew up with Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Strunk and White state their advice unequivocally: "Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is 'nevertheless'" (48).


       Strunk and White are to be commended for their pithy rules and commonsense approach to usage, but on the matter of however their analysis is suspect. The authors offer two rationales for their rule. One is that "when however comes first, it means 'in whatever way' or 'to whatever extent' " (49). This is not true. Whenhowever is followed immediately by a comma, readers know very well that it means "nevertheless." There is no possibility of misunderstanding. The punctuation signals the meaning, as in the following examples:

 

HOWEVER MEANING "TO WHAT EXTENT"
However hard Ed tried, Kristin always trounced him at chess.

HOWEVER MEANING "NEVERTHELESS"
Kristin had always trounced Ed at chess. However, now that he had improved his game through several months of practice with an expert, Ed was confident he would win.

 

       Strunk and White's other rationale is that however "usually serves better when not in first position" (48). Presumably, style is the issue, and the single example they give does indeed "sound better" when however is delayed:

 

The roads were almost impassable. However, we at last succeeded in reaching camp.

The roads were almost impassable. At last, however, we succeeded in reaching camp. (49)

 

       There are times, though, when however works better at the beginning of the sentence. Consider the example given earlier. Surely the sentence is more graceful and the meaning more emphatic with however at the beginning.

 

Kristin had always trounced Ed at chess. However, now that he had improved his game through several months of practice with an expert, Ed was confident he would win.

Kristin had always trounced Ed at chess. Now that he had improved his game through several months of practice with an expert, however, Ed was confident he would win.

 

In the second sentence, readers need to wait too long to hear the word signaling the contrast.

 

       Current usage experts are nearly unanimous in rejecting Strunk and White's hard-and-fast rule. They point out that the placement of however often depends on the writer's meaning, since the word signals which ideas are being contrasted. Consider the following examples, given by Bryan Garner:

 

Jane, however, wasn't able to make the trip.

Jane wasn't able, however, to make the trip. (428)

 

In the first sentence, Jane, unlike others, had to miss the trip. In the second sentence, Jane, who had been hoping to go, had to miss the trip.


       Roy Copperud explains that when a sentence opens with however, "the stress is against all that follows" (185). The same is true when a sentence opens with but. Bryan Garner tends to prefer but to however at the beginning of a sentence—”not because however is wrong at the beginning but because the three-syllable word followed by a comma "is a ponderous way of introducing a contrast" (428). In informal contexts at least, he has a point. Let's look at the example about chess one more time:

 

Kristin had always trounced Ed at chess. However, now that he had improved his game through several months of practice with an expert, Ed was confident he would win.

Kristin had always trounced Ed at chess. But now that he had improved his game through several months of practice with an expert, Ed was confident he would win.

 

       Conclusion: There is nothing wrong with using however (meaning "nevertheless") at the beginning of a sentence. When placing however, consider both meaning and style. And at times, especially in informal writing, but is often a better choice than however.

 

 

Source: Hacker Handbooks (Boston: Bedford, 2013).

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