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

You can start a sentence with "however," but you need to be careful. And what about "and" and "but"?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #354

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.

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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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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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