But versus however: or conjunctions and conjunctives – what’s the difference?

But versus however is not an equal contest

It’s simple. If you are trying to choose whether to use but or however, choose the bold but over the weak, wimpy however – every single time.

If I could choose just one topic in grammar where I could way a magic wand and have my way, it is this: the issue of using but or however. Consider this usage note from the 2013 (6th edn) Concise Macquarie Dictionary.

The conservative – and now old-fashioned – rule was that however meaning ‘nevertheless’ should not stand at the beginning of a sentence and should have a comma before and after it . . . It is now common to begin a sentence with however, but it should be noted that a comma after it may be useful in distinguishing however meaning ‘nevertheless’ from however meaning ‘in whatever way’ . . . There is evidence to show that there has been a further step in the process which has turned however in the sense of  ‘but, nevertheless’ into a conjunction . . . The older generation may find that this use is contrary to what they were taught, but the younger generation is increasingly accepting it.

You thought the rule was that you shouldn’t start a sentence with But? No – the rule, as Macquarie so usefully points out, is that you shouldn’t stat a sentence with However!

But let’s go back a bit (see how I started this sentence?). We know that but is a coordinating conjunction that works to join clauses together, and that  it is acceptable to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. We also know that however is an adverb. (In traditional grammar, however is an adverb of degree; in modern grammar, it is a conjunctive adverb.) But and however are very different parts of speech, which means they perform, or should perform, very different functions. How they have come to be seen as performing the same function is a mystery to me, but I have a theory. My theory is this: people believed that they should not, could not start a sentence with but. But they wanted and needed to start sentences with but, so they cast around for a word they could use instead – and they hit on however. It was not a common word, so the original difference in meaning didn’t really bother them.

But this issue of how to start a sentence was never about the actual specific words! The belief about But or And at the start of the sentence was a belief about conjunctions – and this where I believe grammar has evolved. You can start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. Trying to shoehorn an adverb into the place of a conjunction is just not a good idea and it doesn’t work as well. But is short, strong and emphatic. However, like the other conjunctive adverbs, weakens your writing.

The use of however in place of but is rampant in academic writing. When speaking, academics will often say however in place of um when pausing for a moment. How … ev … er … – those three drawn-out syllables provide a moment to catch your breath and think about what to say next! This use has led to however popping up in the middle of sentences where it doesn’t belong at all, just because the writer paused to think for a moment.

But so much for grammar theory and my speculations. In practice, just give up using however. You won’t miss it. I have spent more than 20 years deleting however from books – and for the five years I was copy-editing the Australian Journal of Education, however did not appear once. Did anyone miss it? I don’t think so; in fact, I don’t think anyone even noticed.

If your New Year resolutions are fading as quickly as memories of 2022, then here’s a new, simple one. Make the rest of this year the year that you give up using however to mean but. Look for the howevers when you reread your work, and get rid of them. (You may be surprised just how many there are.) If you find that means you are starting every sentence with but, then you still don’t need however: you need to work on your paragraph and sentence structures. If a 200,000-word book can go without however, so can you.

If complete abstinence is too hard, just cut down. Please . . .

Of course, if you wish to use however in its function as an adverb of degree, go for it! I do realise that, however hard I try, I am unlikely to win this war of eradicating the wishy-washy misplaced, misused howevers. But that doesn’t mean I should give up trying.

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