The Myth of However

Roughly one in every five of you reading this tip labors under the Myth of However. The other eighty percent don’t even know it’s a rule.

Those of you who have labored under the myth probably heard it from a crotchety grammarian:

“You can’t begin a sentence with However.”

Starting a sentence with However was somehow “ungrammatical.” It's not. Like all myths, however, the Myth of However was grounded in a little fact, an innocuous statement written by E. B. White himself, and over time turned infamous.

Although he died 30 years ago, E. B. White still seems to be the arbiter of American English. In a section of The Elements of Style titled "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused," he addresses 123 words and phrases we need to approach with care. This is his unwitting statement about However: “The word usually serves better when not in first position.” Not ungrammatical, illegal, or immoral; only, It seems to work better somewhere else in the sentence.

Here's the problem for White: however is a conjunction meaning “nevertheless"; however is also an adverb meaning “in whatever way.” White feared that if we opened a sentence with the word, readers might stumble at the outset: Whoa, which way is this writer going? However, only about 1.73 in every 100 howevers is an adverb (my unscientific observation), so odds are, it will be a conjunction anyway; rarely will you see it used like this:

However [In whatever way] the judge arrived at his decision, he ignored our third argument.

Besides, when we open a sentence with the conjunction However, we will always place a comma after it, so there is no way to confuse the two:

However, [Nevertheless,] the judge arrived at his decision before anyone thought he would.

Did White eschew opening sentences with However because good writers don’t open sentences with conjunctions? Doubtful. In that same section of The Elements of Style, about 25 pages, White himself begins exactly one dozen sentences with the most notorious conjunctions And and But. I know; I counted them. Which gives you some idea of the enormous amount of excitement in my life.

The Wrap: Sometimes, I will put a conjunction however a few words into a sentence, ala White, as I did in the third paragraph above; other times, when I'm feeling a little defiant, perhaps a touch dangerous, I will put a conjunction However, at the beginning of the sentence, as I did in the fifth paragraph. Both are acceptable. However you do it, however, is up to you.

Writing Tips in your Inbox

Recent Posts

About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder
Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for the American Bar Association, the Social Security Administration, PG&E, Kraft, Microsoft, and law firms like Jones Day, Sidley, and WilmerHale. His critically-acclaimed Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea hit #7 on the New York Times Bestsellers List.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to provide writers a full-time, reliable editor; to save them time and money; and to give them the confidence their writing is as clear and concise as they can make it. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office has awarded nine patents to WordRake's unique technology, and Harvard Law School has recognized WordRake as "Disruptive Innovation."