Tag Archives: however

You can’t use it however you want; however, you can use it

My latest piece for The Week is on the word however, which just happens to be one of Wikipedia’s favourite words – however, people aren’t always sure how to handle it.

However: Everything you need to know about a commonly abused word



Montgomery Starling-Byrd, lately elected Grand Panjandrum of the Order of Logogustation, was in town and made a stop by our local Domus Logogustationis for the monthly Words, Wines, and Whatever tasting event. We took this as a chance to generate a little extra interest and invited various parties to come be addressed. And so Montgomery stood in the middle of our Rather Good Hall (not quite up to the level of a Great Hall) surrounded by students, journalists, and student journalists, and gave a rousing and mercifully brief discourse on why English should be viewed as a game, and not one with tightly fixed rules, either. He then entertained questions.

One young fellow in a red shirt piped up: “Why does the name of your society mix Latin and Greek? Doesn’t that seem a little sloppy?”

Montgomery arched an eyebrow slightly. “It’s hardly the first macaronic word in the language. In fact, we mixed logo and gustation partly as an expression of the sort of play I was just speaking of. It’s true that a more cleanly Latin formation would be verbogustation. However, that would have far too strong a taste of bogus.”

The assembled scribes scribbled. One said to her friend next to her, “Comma with the however?”

Red shirt looked back over his shoulder. “Never!”

A green-shirted young woman said, “What do you mean, never? Always!”

“No,” said a slip of a thing in a black dress, “a period.”

“A period?!” said the first. “Oh… no, I meant after.”

“Not a period!” said red shirt. “Always a semicolon. One should not start a sentence with a conjunctive adverb.”

Montgomery’s eyebrow raised a titch more. Before he could interject, the first woman’s friend, a girl in a pink button-up, said, “People don’t speak with semicolons. Didn’t you learn that? Any journalism professor will tell you that.”

“I speak with semicolons,” Montgomery interjected. “And I believe some journalism professors do as well. However, in this instance, I intended however to be the start of a new sentence.”

“Boy,” said red shirt, “you really are a lot of descriptivists, aren’t you? Throwing Strunk and White out the window?”

Maury, in the background, had anticipated this, and had plucked a copy of the very book off the shelf. He handed it to Montgomery open to page 43. Montgomery read aloud: “Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is ‘nevertheless.’ The word usually serves better when not in first position.” He handed the book back to Maury. “Two observations: first, even were Strunk and White holy writ, which it certainly is not, that is a recommendation, not an absolute rule; second, as just mentioned, it is not holy writ. It is opinion. And whoever told you never to start a sentence with however is terribly misguided.”

“We need rules,” protested red shirt.

“We have rules,” Montgomery said. “Otherwise me to able you understand wouldn’t be.”

A chorus of “What?” broke out.

“Exactly,” said Montgomery. “Now, let’s see what you all have for the disputed phrase. However you may have it, it is likely to be understood; however, you may have it in a way that transgresses the expected norms of standard English.”

Those assembled surveyed their transcriptions. Aside from assorted other errors and inaccuracies, the following renditions were found:

…verbugustation, however that would have…
…verbogustation, however, that would have…
…verbogustation however, that would have…
…verbogustation. However that would have…
…verbogustation; however that would have…
…verbogustation; however, that would have…
…verbogustation. However, that would have…

“Formally,” Montgomery said, “only these last two are correct, and it is the last which I intended. Conjunctive adverbs are offset from their clauses with commas. If they come first in a clause, the preceding clause boundary is marked with a period or semicolon, as always. A however without commas setting it off is the other however.” Montgomery paused for the briefest of moments. “Which, however,” he added, “is the same however. It is simply differently used.”

Several of the scribblers were darting their eyes around at their friends to see if they had successfully parsed Montgomery’s latest utterance.

Montgomery continued, warming to the subject. “The ever – which, incidentally, is as etymologically puzzling as dog – is attached to wh-words to give them a sort of generalized, indefinite force: whoever said whatever whenever wherever however. (There may seem to be no whyever, but whyever shouldn’t there be?) As a conjunctive adverb, however is shortened from however this may be, which is why we treat it as a dependent clause. We see a similar shortening, for instance, in the use of as far as: whereas formerly all would say as far as ‘however’ goes, now many will say simply as far as ‘however’. Goes to show, doesn’t it?”

Montgomery smiled slightly and gave his little round button of office a tweak. “Clearly there is some confusion over this word; faced with it, we hover between certainty and despair, and know not how to veer. But let its form serve as a mnemonic to you: just as it has a w and then a v, you may think of it as having a single mark – a comma – after, and a double mark – a semicolon – before, or a double-strength pause – a period. Then your usage will not change as the weather.”

Another pause. Most of those who had been writing were no longer certain whether to write or not.

“However,” Montgomery added, “those are the formal rules, required of editors; linguists have the luxury of simply observing the variations. And in the Order of Logogustation we usually hew slightly more to the linguist’s side, with a healthy dose of fun tossed in.” He smiled. “Are we having fun yet?”

Red shirt, stuffing his materials in his bag, looked up. “Whatever.”