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More on the ‘However’ Myth

"The Importance of Being Earnest," original production, 1895. Allan Aynesworth (left) is Algernon, with George Alexander as Jack.

When I see the dumb prohibitions that college-educated speakers of American English have been coerced into believing, it makes me want to weep. In a Lingua Franca post last week (“The Comma Sutra‚ÄĚ) my colleague and electronic pen-pal Ben Yagoda reported these fully correct judgments (I mark the ungrammatical example with a star):

[1] *The weather is great today, however it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.

[2] The weather is great today, but it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.

[3]¬†The weather is great today. However, it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.

Ben is right: The first is a run-on error or comma splice, but the other two are fine. Yet a significant number of the nearly 700 online comments he got at The New York Times site expressed the opinion that sentence [3] is some kind of grammar error. Ye gods.

I blame those old fools Strunk and White. “In the meaning nevertheless,” wrote William Strunk in 1918, this adverb is “not to come first in its sentence or clause”; and E.‚ÄČB. White kept a similar statement in the 1959 reanimation of The Elements of Style: “Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is ‘nevertheless’,” it says (Page 48). “The word usually serves better when not in first position.”

Is this good advice? Well, don’t just hang your head and worry: Investigate! You are as capable as I am. Go to Gutenberg.org, download some classic books from when Strunk was a young man (the late 1800s), and use your word processor to search for occurrences of "however" at the beginning of a sentence. Let’s start with The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). In the opening scene, Algernon says: “However, it makes no matter.” When interviewing Jack, Lady Bracknell says: “However, I am quite ready to enter your name,” and a bit later, “However, that could easily be altered.” In the last act Jack says: “However, you have got to catch the four-five” and Dr. Chasuble says: “However, as your present mood seems to be one peculiarly secular, I will return to the church at once.”

Are we supposed to think Oscar Wilde was unable to represent Algernon Moncrieff and Lady Bracknell and Jack Worthing (a.k.a. Ernest Moncrieff) and the learned Dr. Chasuble as speaking Standard English correctly? This is insanity.

You will find sentence-initial uses of the adverb however in works by Lewis Carroll, Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Henry James, Arthur Machen, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Bram Stoker, Mark Twain‚ÄĒin fact every author I have investigated.

The hundred-year nightmare of grammar instruction in this country has littered the brains of many college-educated Americans with many lies told by incompetent grammar and style gurus. Few are more obvious than this one. Yet anyone who reports on what the facts show is likely to be charged with dumbing down, or ignoring the rules, or being left-wing, or thinking that anything goes.

How can I free people from the self-imposed burden of these mythical constraints, these “rules” that good writers do not respect and never did?

Perhaps this observation will help: Strunk and White assert that “When however comes first, it means in whatever way or to whatever extent.” This is not true, but it gives a useful clue about their concern. They seem to imagine that there is a danger of ambiguity. It is not true. Certainly, these two sentences share the same sequence of letters:

[4]¬†However it turns out, we’ll be covered.

[5]¬†However, it turns out we’ll be covered.

In [4] the however means “no matter how,” and in [5] it means “nonetheless.” But the commas clarify everything. In the terms of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, the exhaustive conditional adjunct that begins [4] must not have a comma after the first word, while the supplementary connective adjunct that begins [5] must be followed by a comma. The idea that all ambiguity in English should or could be avoided is absurd, of course, but for what it is worth, no ambiguity arises here.

The connective adjunct however has always been grammatically and stylistically permitted as the first word of an independent clause, and there is no reason to think otherwise unless you believe authoritarian old nitwits like Strunk and White when they assert something that, as the literature of their time will readily show you, is entirely without rationale.

Please, educated Americans everywhere, stop wasting your time on learning and remembering ridiculous usage stipulations like this. Break free, and leave such linguistically unmotivated nonsense behind.

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