However you want

Who’s on first?

A Florida correspondent writes:

My boss is obsessed with Strunk & White, and so tells me that I can never start a sentence with “however” when using it to mean “nevertheless.” I disagree with him and say that I can start a sentence with “however” when I mean “nevertheless” if I put a comma after the “however.” However (lol), he, as well as many I have seen, misinterpret Strunk & White and just put commas around “however” without regard to where the “however” is placed in the sentence. For example, instead of writing:

“I’ll go to the store. If, however, you want me to buy something, I’ll need your credit card.”

he’ll write:

“I’ll go to the store, however, if you want me to buy something, I’ll need your credit card.”

The former is correct according to Strunk & White. The latter is incorrect according to Strunk & White, but that’s what my boss does under the guise of abiding by Strunk & White. I also think that the following is correct (with which Strunk & White and my boss disagree):

“I’ll go to the store. However, if you want me to buy something, I’ll need your credit card.”

Well, to start with, thanks for writing most of this column for me. Second, your boss (and you) must have a very old copy of Strunk & White. So old, in fact, that it’s just Strunk. You both need to modernize.

In the first edition of The Elements of Style, in 1918, William Strunk Jr. wrote of “however”: “In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause.”

However, in the 1959 edition, when E.B. White became involved and Strunk had decamped to the great grammar gathering in the sky, the advice had softened: “Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is nevertheless. The word usually serves better when not in first position.” The ban had become an advisory.

Nevertheless, few usage guides advise against that any more. The Chicago Manual of Style notes: “However has been used as a conjunction since the fourteenth century. Like other conjunctions, it can be used at the beginning of a sentence. But however is more ponderous and has less impact than the simple but.” Garner’s Modern American Usage says that using “however” at the beginning of a sentence “isn’t a grammatical error; it’s merely a stylistic lapse, the word But or Yet ordinarily being much preferable.” Garner’s also says the usage is “ponderous.”

So it’s not a “never.” It’s a “you can, if your boss will let you.”

Strunk and White, together or separately, don’t specifically discuss whether “however” should always be surrounded by commas, but when they use “however” in midsentence to mean “nevertheless,” “however” is bracketed by commas, as in “It is, however, correct to say …”

What your boss is doing, though, is hypercorrection, which often makes things wrong: He follows the “rule” without noting its effect on the rest of the sentence. When he writes “I’ll go to the store, however, if you want me to buy something, I’ll need your credit card,” he’s creating a comma splice. He either needs to put a semicolon or a period before his “however.” If he puts in the period and wants to avoid offending Stunk or White, he needs to listen to you. Your sentences are correct.

However, the overall lesson here is that, as useful as Strunk and White is (or are), it’s important to recognize that language changes, and has changed a lot even since White joined Strunk. Some battles are lost, however much you want to win them.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,