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However should I use ‘however’? – Punctuation and word order with conjunctive adverbs

As is no big surprise when it comes to the English language, the question of how to use ‘however’ is complicated by the fact that the word has two different meanings: ‘in whatever way’ and ‘by contrast’.

‘However’ meaning ‘in whatever way’

In the question of the title, the first ‘however’ means ‘in whatever way’, and when used with this meaning it can come:

  • at the start of the sentence, with no comma after it: However should I use this word?
  • after a semicolon, with no comma after it: I don’t know how to use this word; however I do it is wrong.
  • in the middle of a sentence, with no commas around it: I get it wrong however I try to use it.

‘However’ meaning ‘by contrast’

In this context, the meaning of ‘however’ is the same as that of ‘but’, only more formal, and this causes further confusion because although their meaning is the same, their grammar is different.

‘But’ can be used between two sentences to make them one, either with a comma or without:

  • I like tea but I don’t like coffee.
  • I like tea, but I don’t like coffee.

It is not conventionally considered correct to use it at the start of a sentence, and it certainly can’t be used at the end.

‘However’, on the other hand (apologies for introducing another adverb of contrast!), can come at the start of the sentence as long as it is followed by a comma:

  • I like tea. However, I don’t like coffee.

It cannot be used to make two sentences one, either with no punctuation or with a comma; instead, a semicolon is needed before ‘however’ and a comma after it:

  • I like tea; however, I don’t like coffee.

Having said that (apologies again), it can come part way through a single independent clause or sentence, and is traditionally enclosed by commas:

  • I like tea. I don’t, however, like coffee.

It can even come at the end, with a comma before it:

  • I like tea. I don’t like coffee, however.

Other conjunctive adverbs

Other adverbs that follow the same pattern are ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’, ‘nevertheless’ and ‘therefore’, and indeed ‘on the other hand’, ‘having said that’ and ‘indeed’, with the commas now considered optional for many of these, particularly ‘therefore’ and ‘indeed’. Nonetheless (and there’s another one), some positions may sound more natural than others. For instance, the examples below that are marked with an asterisk (*) sound a little awkward to me, but you and others may well disagree. Once again, it seems to be a question of the extraordinary complexity and flexibility of the English language.

Most verbs: They have decided to…

  • They therefore have decided to… (between subject and auxiliary: no comma)
  • They have, therefore, decided to… (between auxiliary and main verb: comma either side)
  • They have decided, therefore, to… (after main verb: comma either side)

Modal verbs: They can choose what to do.

  • *They therefore can choose what to do. (between subject and auxiliary: no comma)
  • They can, therefore, choose what to do. (between auxiliary and main verb: comma either side)
  • *They can choose what to do, therefore. (at end of sentence: comma before)

Verb ‘to be’: Their options are limited.

  • Their options, therefore, are limited. (between subject and verb: comma either side)
  • Their options are, therefore, limited. (after verb: comma either side)
  • *Their options are limited, therefore. (at end of sentence: comma before)

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Posted in Grammar, Punctuation