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Real Grammar Quiz, Question 10: can I use “however” at the beginning of a sentence?

Macmillan Dictionary – Real GrammarReal Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow.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 DictionaryReal Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use.

In this series, we have brought you blog posts and videos that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. There’s also a Real Grammar quiz for you to try.

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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”.

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Michael Rundell

6 Comments

  • Perhaps we need to send a link to this to the Justice Ministry, where the Lord Chancellor is instructing his civil servants on grammar and style: “[He] has also told officials that they must not start a sentence with “However”. However, Independent on Sunday research has established that Mr Gove has often done just that in articles for The Times, where he was once a journalist.” (See what they did there?)

  • Hi Michael, I agree of course that it is perfectly fine to use sentence-initial ‘however’, and I was amused to read Mr Gove’s opinions on the subject. I notice that all your examples have a comma after ‘however’, as does the original Quiz question: “However, the safest option is to reduce speed limits”. But there is also the comma-less use, in sentences like “However these plans were turned down by the Edinburgh Planning Committee”, a use which I think has entered the ranks of the ‘incorrect’ more recently. The disapproval extends to non-sentence-initial ‘however’, as in “A good effort from Titan, however it is not on a par with some of their earlier releases”. Here, ‘however’ has become a coordinating conjunction, and works exactly like ‘but’.
    The whole BNC has around 27,500 instances of sentence initial “However”. Of these, the vast majority are followed by a comma. But in more recent corpora, comma-less ‘however’ as a conjunction is much more widespread. (It’s hard to get exact numbers, because of sentences like “However difficult it is…”) The difference, for me, is that I probably wouldn’t use comma-less ‘however’ myself, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s wrong. I just thought this might be worth mentioning.

  • Thanks, Gill. I think I’m probably like you in preferring the comma after initial However, but I’d also noticed that the comma-less version is pretty common, and it’s certainly nothing to get worked up about. With so many of these quiz questions, I sometimes wondered whether there was a real issue – and most of the people who answered the quiz seemed to agree that initial However, splitting an infinitive, etc were perfectly acceptable. But I kept finding evidence that these prescriptions were still being handed down, and still had the power to make some people anxious. And Michael Gove’s ridiculous edict against sentence-initial However came out right after we published a post on that very subject!

  • Michael, I don’t normally think much about the niceties of punctuation, but… My comment strayed from your better-known ‘real grammar’ point – what I do find mildly interesting applies particularly to comma-less ‘however’ in the middle of a sentence. A lot of sticklers do object to this, on the grounds that ‘however’ is being used exactly like ‘but’ to link two coordinating clauses – it has ‘become’ a coordinating conjunction (a tiny class consisting of ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘or’, and a few more marginal cases). The only way we can classify words is by their behaviour, and in this case punctuation is part of that. Take the sentence ”The structure of the building did not suffer too badly, however there is extensive smoke damage in the upstairs rooms”. The problem with this, for your traditionalists, would not even be fixed by inserting a comma after ‘however’: the ‘grammar’ is dodgy. So arguably this is not just a case of creative punctuation, and not entirely trivial.

  • Hi, English is a second language for me, so there may be nuances I don’t know. Here’s how I understand the use of however.
    Initial However without comma: However strongly you argue about it, you won’t convince her.
    You can place it in the beginning, in the middle, or in the end. However you like to do it, it’s okay.

    The way I remember it, the advise of using an embedded However is only to avoid incorrectly using however to mean regardless of how when you mean but/in contrast. If you use it in the beginning and forgot the comma, you inadvertently mean the former.

    “However these plans were turned down” is incorrect not because of the placement, but because now it means “In whatever way these plans get rejected”

    “The structure of the building did not suffer too badly, however there is extensive smoke damage in the upstairs rooms”
    I’ll probably rewrite it this way: The structure of the building did not suffer too badly; however, there is extensive smoke damage in the upstairs rooms. Or maybe split them in two with the second sentence starting with However with a comma.

    While I tend to lean towards traditional usage on my own writing (embedded however, Oxford comma, not splitting infinitives), I don’t religiously follow them. For instance, sometimes it just sounds more natural to split the infinitive, start with a conjunction, or end with a preposition. I guess what I’m trying to say is people saying it’s wrong to use However in a certain way may not really be complaining about the placement or lack of comma per se, but the resulting misuse of the other definition of However.
    Sure there may be those who will insist initial However is wrong, but for others… maybe it’s something else that bothers them.

  • Hi Tina
    Your first example: “However strongly you argue about it” involves a different sense of ‘however’, and is not particularly relevant here. I don’t think ambiguity would often arise – context usually takes care of this.

    You are absolutely right of course about comma-less ‘however’. But I’d say that this use is so common these days that there is no longer much point in talking about ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. It’s actually neater to say that ‘however’ has slipped into a new word class, that of co-ordinating conjunctions, and is now interchangeable with ‘but’.

    There is another, parallel development: ‘plus’ has moved in exactly the same way and is interchangeable with ‘and’. Examples: “This means that we do not have to send out reminders, plus you get your membership card bright and early” and “Plus you will be told about all our special offers”. I find this parallel development interesting – there’s a balance to it.

    I’d predict that these uses of ‘plus’ and ‘however’ will become more and more frequent, and commas and semi-colons will eventually be phased out in the co-text of ‘however’. Purists will moan about the decline of the language as usual, however they will get used to it. (That hurt, using it myself!)

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