Arrant Pedantry

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However

Several weeks ago, Bob Scopatz asked in a comment about the word however, specifically whether it should be preceded by a comma or a semicolon when it’s used between two clauses. He says that a comma always seems fine to him, but apparently this causes people to look askance at him.

The rule here is pretty straightforward, and Purdue’s Online Writing Lab has a nice explanation. Independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunctions are separated by a comma; independent clauses that are not joined by coordinating conjunctions or are joined by what OWL calls “conjunctive adverbs” require a semicolon.

I’ve also seen the terms “transitional adverb” and “transitional phrase,” though the latter usually refers to multiword constructions like as a result, for example, and so on. These terms are probably more accurate since (I believe) words and phrases like however are not, strictly speaking, conjunctions. Though they do show a relationship between two clauses, that relationship is more semantic or rhetorical than grammatical.

Since however falls into this group, it should be preceded by a semicolon, though it can also start a new sentence. Grammar-Monster.com has some nice illustrative examples:

I am leaving on Tuesday, however, I will be back on Wednesday to collect my wages.
I am leaving on Tuesday; however, I will be back on Wednesday to collect my wages.
I am leaving on Tuesday. However, I will be back on Wednesday to collect my wages.

The first example is incorrect, while the latter two are correct. Note that “however” is also followed by a comma. (But would also work here, though in that case it would be preceded by a comma and not followed by one.)

Bob also mentioned that he sometimes starts a sentence with “however,” and this usage is a little more controversial. Strunk & White and others forbade however in sentence- or clause-initial position, sometimes with the argument that in this position it can only mean “in whatever way” or “to whatever extent.”

It’s true that however is sometimes used this way, as in “However it is defined, the middle class is standing on shaky ground,” to borrow an example from COCA. But this is clearly different from the Grammar-Monster sentences above. In those, the punctuation—namely the comma after “however”—indicates that this is not the “in whatever way” however, but rather the “on the contrary” or “in spite of that” one.

Some editors fastidiously move sentence-initial “howevers” to a position later in the sentence, as in I will be back on Wednesday, however, to collect my wages. As long as it’s punctuated correctly, it’s fine in either location, so there’s no need to move it. But note that when it occurs in the middle of a clause, it’s surrounded by commas.

It’s possible that sentence-initial however could be ambiguous without the following comma, but even then the confusion is likely to be momentary. I don’t see this as a compelling reason to avoid sentence-initial however, though I do believe it’s important to punctuate it properly, with both a preceding semicolon or period and a following comma, to avoid tripping up the reader.

In a nutshell, however is an adverb, not a true conjunction, so it can’t join two independent clauses with just a comma. You can either join those clauses with a semicolon or separate them with a period. But either way, however should be set off by commas. When it’s in the middle of a clause, the commas go on both sides; when it’s at the beginning of a clause, it just needs a following comma. Hopefully this will help Bob (and others) stop getting those funny looks.

7 Responses to However

  1. Hi Jonathon

    Quick question about this post. You mention “for example” as a transitional phrase, and potentially a “conjunctive adverb”. Does this mean you advocate a semi-colon before “for example” used mid-sentence?

    Thanks in anticipation,
    Jessica

  2. Jonathon says:

    Jessica,

    You and some other readers raised a good point, and I’ve revised the post a little to address that. When used at the start of a new clause, these transitional adverbs or adverbial phrases should be preceded by a period or a semicolon, not a comma. But in mid-sentence, they should be set off by commas, as in Transitional adverbs, for example, can be tricky. I hope that answers your question.

  3. Bill Davis says:

    Sentence-initial “However,” is perfectly legitimate, however, in some contexts. Many grammar police fail to take into account the discourse context. Speaker B’s conjunction “however” may link semantically to Speaker A’s statement:

    A: Your legs are short.
    B: However, I never lose a race.

    Another context would be when a speaker builds up one scenario with multiple sentences. Then a single contrastive sentence follows with initial “however.” It would be confusing and actually incorrect to attach the “however” to the final sentence with a semicolon. And it is just plain silly to require that the “however” be moved to a medial position. English is much more robust than that, and allows many words and phrases to be fronted or otherwise repositioned, usually with a pause to indicate a non-default position.

  4. Jill says:

    “The rule here is pretty straightforward, and Purdue’s Online Writing Lab has a nice explanation. Independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunctions are separated by a comma; independent clauses that are not joined by coordinating conjunctions or are joined by what OWL calls “conjunctive adverbs” require a semicolon.”

    But where does this “rule” come from? Who says that all such sentences “require” a semicolon? Partridge’s famous book on punctuation paints a less simple picture. And it is based on many example from usage.

  5. Jonathon says:

    Such rules are conventions that go back centuries and were created by writers, editors, typesetters, and teachers. The rules do change over the years, and some are more flexible than others, but all of the sources I’m familiar with are pretty unanimous on this point. Even Eric Partridge’s You Have a Point There (assuming that’s the famous book you’re referencing) agrees, from what I can tell from the sample available on Google Books.

  6. jrh says:

    Hi, Jonathon,

    Your thoughts on punctuation with then as a conjunctive adverb? In my early copyediting days, it was drilled into me that then required a comma + and or a semicolon between two independent clauses (“Drive 4 miles, and then turn left . . .”). A copy chief I worked with as a freelancer about a decade ago figuratively slapped my hands for following that rule, saying that a comma alone sufficed and the traditional rule was old-fashioned. I’ve been using just the comma ever since, but I’m suddenly gripped by second thoughts.

    • I think that inserting the “and” or changing the comma to a semicolon or period can make it sound a little stuffy or stilted, though using “then” with just a comma preceding it can seem a little informal. I’m not bothered by the comma, but I think you have to judge on a case-by-case basis to see which works best. I’d guess that most readers won’t notice or be bothered by the conjunctive use, though a few sticklers might.

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