Real Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow. As we said in the introduction to this new series from Macmillan Dictionary, Real Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use.
In the tenth and last question in our Real Grammar quiz, we asked which of these sentences was acceptable:
These findings, however, may not be conclusive.
However, these findings may not be conclusive.
We complete our round-up of Real Grammar issues with a nice straightforward one: the simple answer is that both sentences are equally acceptable. For some reason, the traditional belief persists that words like however and therefore should be embedded in the middle of the sentence (as in the first example above), rather than appearing at the beginning. The Chicago Manual of Style observes that:
There is a widespread belief … that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction.
The American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel refers to this notion, too, saying:
A traditional rule says that however should not be used to begin a sentence. But … 42 percent of the Usage Panel said that they did not follow the rule in their own writing.
Although the AHD accepts that this “rule” has no real basis, the figure quoted here is not encouraging, suggesting as it does that this prescription is still widely observed. If 42% of the AHD Panel don’t follow it, then presumably the other 58% do – which means that a great many professional writers religiously avoid using however in sentence-initial position.
So why do people continue to believe this absurd ruling (and act upon it) – despite the fact that, as the Chicago Manual notes, it has “no historical or grammatical foundation”? As so often, the problem may be traced back to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which advises writers to
Avoid starting a sentence with ‘however’ … The word usually serves better when not in first position.
Strunk and White’s handbook specializes in dispensing simplistic advice of this type, without explaining its justification or purpose, yet it remains a respected and popular text, especially in American universities. Its closest British counterpart, Gwynne’s Grammar, dutifully regurgitates this advice (describing sentence-initial however as “incorrect”), as if stating a self-evident and universally accepted truth. (Thankfully, though, Gwynne’s book is far less influential than Strunk and White’s.)
So what does the linguistic evidence tell us? There is some variation in usage depending on the text type. In the “serious” non-fiction component of the British National Corpus, there is a slight preference for inserting however into the middle of the sentence rather than putting it at the beginning. In a contemporary general corpus (covering a broad range of text-types), the position is reversed, with sentence-initial however appearing about 300 times per million words, as against 195 per million for the “embedded” alternative. But most writers appear to have no strong preference, with corpus evidence suggesting that both positions in the sentence are frequently used. And it is equally acceptable – though less common – for however to appear right at the end of the sentence:
The present climate for investors is very different, however.
The nuclear plants will not be phased out until alternative energy sources come on-stream, however.
It does not appear to have affected drinking water supplies, however.
So in this case, the message is unambiguous: however is commonly found in any position in a sentence, from first word to last, and sounds perfectly natural wherever it is.
Once again, we are confronted by a traditional “rule” which has no rational basis and is decisively contradicted by the evidence of language in use – and yet remains alive and well. In a final Real Grammar post, we will review some of the the issues that have been discussed during this series. And we will attempt to explain why rules of this type are passed down unquestioningly from one generation to another, causing needless anxiety and confusion for people who simply want to write clear, elegant, and natural English.
To read more about Real Grammar, keep a close eye on our Real Grammar page. You can catch up with the videos on our YouTube channel, where the eleventh video in the series is now live. You can also follow this topic using #realgrammar on Twitter and remember that you can find all our earlier blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realgrammar”.Email this Post