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Grammar Girl 语法女孩(2007年) Starting a Sentence With "However"May 29, 2007)

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Episode 58: May 29, 2007

Today's topic is how to use the word however in a sentence. It's probably more complicated than you think it is.

Can You Start a Sentence with the Word However?

The question I get asked most frequently about however is whether it is OK to use however at the beginning of a sentence, and the answer is yes: it is fine to use however at the beginning of a sentence; you just need to know when to use a comma.

Correct Comma Usage

The comma is important because however is a conjunctive adverb that can be used in two different ways: it can be a conjunction that joins main clauses, or it can be an adverb that modifies a clause.

If you use however at the beginning of a sentence and don't insert a comma, however means “in whatever manner” or “to whatever extent.”

For instance, in 1674 Nicolas Boileau wrote, “However big the fool, there is always a bigger fool to admire him,” and in 1860 Ivan Turgenev wrote, “However much you knock at nature's door, she will never answer you in comprehensible words.” In both of those sentences, however isn't playing a role as a conjunction. It's not joining anything to anything else. I don't think anyone has ever disputed starting a sentence with however when it is used this way.

On the other hand, the esteemed grammarians Strunk and White did say in their book, The Elements of Style, that you shouldn't start a sentence with however when you mean “nevertheless.” Most of the time people stick with Strunk and White, but this is one rare instance where the majority of modern writers have decided that the classic advice is unreasonable (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Here's why: when you put a comma after however at the beginning of a sentence, everyone knows it means “nevertheless.” There's no reason to outlaw a perfectly reasonable use of the word when you can solve the problem with a comma! Some writers have even gone so far as to say it is preferable to start sentences with however instead of burying the word in the middle of a sentence, because putting it at the beginning makes the connection between sentences more clear and therefore makes the text easier to scan (6).

Here are some examples of sentences from famous works that start with however when the writer means “nevertheless”:

  • Robert Pirsig wrote this in the introduction to the book Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “What follows is based on actual occurrences. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice.”

  • Charles Dickens wrote this in Nicholas Nickleby: “It is a great deal easier to go down hill than up. However, they kept on, with unabated perseverance.”

When to Avoid Starting a Sentence with However

As an aside, it's also acceptable to start a sentence with coordinating conjunctions like and, but, and so. It's a somewhat informal style, and it's a good idea not to overdo it in business writing, but it's not wrong (7, 8, 9).

And let me add a bit more about business writing: Despite the fact that it's not wrong to start a sentence with however, a lot of people think it's wrong; so I wouldn't advise doing it in a really important situation where you don't know the people you are writing for and you won't get a chance to defend yourself. For example, I wouldn't start a sentence with however in a cover letter for a job. I'd rather be hired than be right.

How to Use Semicolons with However

If you want to avoid starting a sentence with however, it's not hard to do—just grab a semicolon and use it to connect your two main clauses. What I mean is that instead of putting a period at the end of the sentence before the however, put a semicolon there instead. For example, Dickens wrote, “It's a great deal easier to go down hill than up. However, they kept on,” but he just as easily could have put a semicolon in place of the period and written, “It's a great deal easier to go down hill than up; however, they kept on.”  

How to Use However in the Middle of a Sentence

You can also bury a however that means “nevertheless” in the middle of your sentence. You might do this to avoid using it at the beginning when you are insecure about your audience or you might do it because it makes sense with the rhythm of your sentence.

For example, Dickens buried the however in this sentence from Nicholas Nickelby: “Love, however, is very materially assisted by a warm and active imagination.”

When you put however in the middle of a sentence like this, it should be surrounded by commas.

Here's another example: in Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “The chief weapon of sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was too late, how heartless and greedy they were.” www.quotationspage.com/quote/35408.html

Again, put a comma before and after however when you use it in the middle of a sentence this way. This is one area where people get confused because sometimes you need a semicolon before however in the middle of a long sentence and sometimes you need a comma before however in the middle of a long sentence. Just remember that you only use the semicolon when you are joining two main clauses and the however just happens to be in the way shouting “nevertheless.” As I said in the episode on semicolons, think of a semicolon as a sentence splicer—it splices together two main clauses.

So remember, don't let anyone tell you that it's wrong to start a sentence with however. On the other hand, it might be a good idea to avoid the practice if you're applying for a job since a lot of people mistakenly believe that it is wrong. Mind your commas and semicolons, and don't use any punctuation after however when you use it to mean “in whatever manner” or “to whatever extent.”

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