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Starting a Sentence With "However": Right or Wrong?

And what about "and" and "but"?

By
Mignon Fogarty
February 1, 2013
Episode #354

Page 1 of 4

Starting a Sentence With

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 start a sentence with however. You just need to know when to use a comma and when to use a semicolon.

"However" Without a Comma: Modifier

The comma is important because however is a conjunctive adverb that can be used in two different ways: it can join main clauses and it can modify a clause.

If you use however at the beginning of a sentence and don't insert a comma, however means “in whatever manner,” “to whatever extent,” or “no matter how.”

For instance, Winston Churchill said, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results,” and for those of you who like more modern examples, on the TV show House, Dr. Foreman said, “However bad you think you’re going to be in that room, not being there is worse.”

In both those cases, however isn't playing a role as a conjunction. It's not joining anything to anything else. It means “no matter how.” “However bad you think you’re going to be” and “No matter how bad you think you’re going to be” mean the same thing. I don't think anyone has ever disputed starting a sentence with however when it is used that way.  

"However" with a Comma: Connector

On the other hand, 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” or “but.”

They’re referring to sentences such as this one from Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, “It is a great deal easier to go down hill than up. However, they kept on, with unabated perseverance,” and this more modern example from the 2009 “Star Trek” movie in which Spock says, “I intend to assist in the effort to reestablish communication with Starfleet. However, if crew morale is better served by my roaming the halls weeping, I will gladly defer to your medical expertise.”

In these examples, however is acting as a connector. It’s providing a transition from the previous sentence to the next sentence.

I know many of you revere Strunk and White, but this is one instance in which nearly all modern style guides have decided that the classic advice is unreasonable. The modern style guides don’t call starting a sentence with however an error. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

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. (8)

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