You can start a sentence with "however," but you need to be careful. And what about "and" and "but"?
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.
- 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 "Supergirl," while talking about a world-wide earthquake, Querl Dox said, “however you choose to describe this event, one thing is absolutely certain. We have... [J'onn J'onzz:] A major crisis on our hands.”
In both those cases, "however" isn't playing the role of a conjunction. It's not joining anything to anything else. It means “no matter how.” “However you describe this” and “No matter how you describe this” 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 "Nicholas Nickleby" by Charles Dickens: “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. Nearly all 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)
Starting a sentence with 'but' instead of 'however'
And here’s something that may surprise you even more: modern sources such as The Chicago Manual of Style and Garner’s Modern English Usage say that although it isn’t wrong to start a sentence with "however" (9, 10), it’s usually better to start a sentence with the word "but." Yes, many of you were probably also taught that it’s wrong to start a sentence with a conjunction such as "and" and "but," but that’s a myth too.
After saying it’s not an error to start a sentence with "however," Chicago goes on to add “'however' is more ponderous and has less impact than the simple 'but,'” and Garner’s sentiment is also that it is more effective to start a sentence with "but" or "yet" than "however."
They would probably prefer it if Spock told Bones, “I intend to assist in the effort to reestablish communication with Starfleet. But if crew morale is better served by my roaming the halls weeping, I will gladly defer to your medical expertise.” On the other hand, you also have to consider the style, and you could argue that "however" is a better fit for a character such as Spock precisely because it sounds more ponderous.
When to avoid starting a sentence with 'however'
Even though it's not wrong to start a sentence with "however," sometimes it’s still a good idea to avoid it because a lot of people think it's wrong. I don’t advise starting a sentence with "however" in a cover letter for a job application, for example. You don’t want your resume to get dumped because someone thinks you’ve made a mistake when you really haven’t.
How to use semicolons with 'however'
If you want to avoid starting a sentence with "however," it's not hard to do—just grab a semicolon and use it to connect your two main clauses. What I mean is that instead of putting a period at the end of the sentence before the "however," put a semicolon there instead.
For example, let’s take this sentence from Robert Pirsig’s introduction to the book "Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance": “What follows is based on actual occurrences. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice.” He just as easily could have put a semicolon in place of the period and written, “What follows is based on actual occurrences; however, it should in no way …”
Voilà. With the semicolon, you no longer have a "however" at the beginning of a sentence.
Conjunctive adverbs and semicolons
You put a semicolon before other conjunctive adverbs when they connect main clauses too. For example, you’d put a semicolon before the words "consequently," "moreover," "nevertheless," "still," and "therefore" in similar sentences. They’d each be followed by a comma too.
- It rained; consequently, the party was canceled.
- You have to come to the party. I bought balloons; moreover, I bought cake.
- I don’t trust him; nevertheless, we still have to work together.
- The house seems expensive; still, it’s the cheapest house available right now.
- I love marshmallows; therefore, I love s’mores.
How to use 'however' in the middle of a sentence
You can also bury a "however" that means “nevertheless” in the middle of a sentence. You might do this to avoid using it at the beginning when you are insecure about your audience, or you might do it because it makes sense with the rhythm of your sentence. Garner and Chicago both say using "however" is a good way to add emphasis to the part that comes next. For example, Dickens buried the "however" in this sentence from "Nicholas Nickleby":
Love, however, is very materially assisted by a warm and active imagination.
When you put "however" in the middle of a sentence like this, it should be surrounded by commas. Here's another example: in "Breakfast of Champions," Kurt Vonnegut wrote,
Again, put a comma before and after "however" when you use it in the middle of a sentence this way. This is one area where people get confused because sometimes you need a semicolon before "however" in the middle of a long sentence and sometimes you need a comma before "however" in the middle of a long sentence.
Just remember that you only use the semicolon when you are joining two main clauses and the "however" just happens to be in the way shouting “nevertheless.”
As I said in the episode on semicolons, think of a semicolon as a sentence splicer—it splices together two main clauses.
So remember, don't let anyone tell you that it's wrong to start a sentence with "however," and it's often more effective to use the simpler word "but." On the other hand, it might be a good idea to avoid the practice if you're applying for a job since a lot of people mistakenly believe that it is wrong. Mind your commas and semicolons, and don't use any punctuation after "however" when you use it to mean “in whatever manner,” “to whatever extent,” or "no matter how."
- "however." Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. dictionary.reference.com/browse/however (August 15, 2021).
- Aaron, J. The Little, Brown Essential Handbook. New York: Pearson Education, 2006, p. 71, p. 231.
- Scharton, M. and Neuleib, J. Things Your Grammar Never Told You. Second edition. New York: Pearson Education, 2001, p. 77.
- Spina, G. The Mountain Man's Field Guide to Grammar. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2006, p.221.
- Hacker, D. and Sommers, N. “However." Strategies for Online Learners: A Hacker Handbooks Supplement, 7th edition.” Bedford/St. Martin's. 2011. p. 146.
- Garner, B. “however” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. 2009.
- “Beginning a sentence with ‘however’” The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition. 5.204. https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/book/ed17/part2/ch05/psec204.html (accessed August 15, 2021)
- Henning, K. “Writing for Readers Who Scan.” The Click Z Network. February 6, 2001. https://web.archive.org/web/20030202221035/http://www.clickz.com/design/onl_edit/article.php/836621 (accessed August 15, 2021).
- Stilman, A. Grammatically Correct. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2004, p. 262.
- Lutz, G. and Stevenson, D. Grammar Desk Reference. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2005, p.42.
Web Bonus: Extra Examples
"However" (“to whatever extent” or “in whatever manner”) starting a sentence
Let them be. Let them lie unspoken of, in his breast. However distinctly or indistinctly he entertained these thoughts, he arrived at the conclusion, Let them be. Among the mighty store of wonderful chains that are for ever forging, day and night, in the vast iron-works of time and circumstance, there was one chain forged in the moment of that small conclusion, riveted to the foundations of heaven and earth, and gifted with invincible force to hold and drag. Charles Dickens, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."
"However" (“nevertheless”) starting a sentence
However, never daunted, I will cope with adversity in my traditional manner ... sulking and nausea. Tom K. Ryan (Creator of the Tumbleweeds comic strip)
"However" (“to whatever extent” or “in whatever manner”) in the middle of a sentence
I have learned never to ridicule any man's opinion, however strange it may seem. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Captain of the Polestar." If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. Henry David Thoreau, "Walden."
How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, (Sherlock Holmes) "The Sign of Four."
A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise. "Pooh's Little Instruction Book," inspired by A. A. Milne.
Every author, however modest, keeps a most outrageous vanity chained like a madman in the padded cell of his breast. Logan Pearsall Smith.
The moment a man sets his thoughts down on paper, however secretly, he is in a sense writing for publication. Raymond Chandler.
"However" (“nevertheless”) in the middle of a sentence with commas
There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass! Terry Pratchett, "The Truth."