Friday, May 8, 2009

Elements of Style: However, but nevertheless

This is the second installment of the Elements of Style Series where I relay helpful hints for good writing from the classic book, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

Changes of direction in writing are essential. Fortunately, the English language has plenty of words and phrases that allow us to shift gears in our writing. Consulting the thesaurus on the word but in MS Word yields the synonyms: yet, nevertheless, however, although, on the contrary, on the other hand, still, nonetheless, conversely, then again, and in spite of this.

Of these words, most people prefer however. The word has an air of authority that still and then again cannot match. Yet, people often misuse the word however because it has another meaning. For example, what are we to make of the following passage?
Julianne Hough was reluctant to dance this season. However, Julianne danced with Chuck.

The writer clearly means to change direction with the word however, but the English language tells that this is an incomplete sentence! As Strunk and White remind us, the word however, when used at the beginning of a sentence, means in whatever way or to whatever extent. For example:
However Julianne danced with Chuck, she dazzled Len Goodman.

The introductory clause of this sentence is identically the second sentence in the first passage. How are we supposed to detect the change in direction at the beginning of a sentence when however has this double meaning? A reader of the first passage should still be wondering how Julianne danced with Chuck, but the sentence is over. By the time the reader figures out that however was supposed to mean nevertheless, the effect of the change in direction in the passage is lost.

Because of the confusion it causes, Strunk and White tell writers to avoid using the word however at the beginning of a sentence when however's meaning is but, nevertheless, or yet. In however's place, use nevertheless, but, on the other hand, or any other word that is appropriate for a change of direction.

The next installment of the Elements of Style Series, "Word use and abuse" will appear on this blog on Friday, 15 May 2009. I will continue this series each Friday until I run out of interesting topics in grammar and writing.

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