Beginning with “however”?

“My boss [professor, English teacher] told me never to begin a sentence with however.”

I’ve heard this comment a number of times from law students and lawyers, and it’s often followed by a sincere “Why?” In this post I’ll discuss where this advice comes from and suggest that it’s a stylistic suggestion, not a rule.

The most likely source of this prohibition is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Their advice against beginning with however is consistent through four editions: “Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is ‘nevertheless.’”[1] Why that advice? Strunk and White believed that when however comes first, it means “in whatever way” or “to whatever extent.”[2] Here’s a pair of examples that show what they were thinking:

a. However it turns out, the policy will cover the loss.
b. However, it turns out the policy will cover the loss.

In example a, however means “in whatever way,” but in b it means “nevertheless.” What distinguishes the meanings is the comma after however in example b. Apparently, Strunk and White worried that young writers (The Elements of Style is for college students, after all) would include or omit the comma incorrectly, creating an ambiguous however—hence the prohibition. Under the prohibition, when you mean “nevertheless,” you must move however into the sentence and set it off with commas. Here, examples c and d follow the rule against beginning with however, and example e breaks it.

c. The brief, however, does not address personal jurisdiction.
d. The brief does not, however, address personal jurisdiction.
e. However, the brief does not address personal jurisdiction.

Yet in reality, there’s no rule against beginning with however. According to Bryan Garner, beginning with however is “not a grammatical error.”[3] Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage declares that “there is no absolute rule for the placement of however.”[4] And Terri LeClercq says you may “use however in any position.”[5]

So for the meaning “nevertheless” or “on the other hand,” it’s fine to begin with however [plus a comma]. Legal writers can master comma rules sufficiently well to avoid the ambiguity Strunk and White feared. And beginning with however is not only grammatically justified, it has the advantage of signaling contrast for readers immediately, rather than later in the sentence. For example:

g. We closed the deal on Thursday. However, the payment arrived on Friday.

Of course, you can also place however mid-sentence to create desired emphasis, as we saw in examples c and d above. Just be sure that if you use a pair of commas, however isn’t separating independent clauses, which would require a semicolon and comma.

h. Right: We closed the deal on Thursday. The payment, however, arrived on Friday.
i. Right: We closed the deal on Thursday; however, the payment arrived on Friday.
j. Wrong: We closed the deal on Thursday, however, the payment arrived on Friday.

Example j is a run-on sentence or comma splice, an error I occasionally see in legal writing. Of course, you could use but in these sentences and simplify the punctuation while punching up the transition. In fact, if there’s a stylistically justified reason to avoid beginning with however, it’s that however is a heavy, multi-syllabic transition.

k. We closed the deal on Thursday, but the payment arrived on Friday.
l. We closed the deal on Thursday. But the payment arrived on Friday.

So if your boss or professor tells you not to begin with however, think of it as a stylistic suggestion—but one you’re required to follow. Otherwise, place however where it creates the emphasis you want, even if that’s at the beginning. And consider but.[6]

_____

  1. William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 48 (4th ed. 2000).
  2. Id. at 49.
  3. Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 415 (3d ed. 2011).
  4. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage 515 (1994).
  5. Terri LeClercq, Expert Legal Writing 180 (1995).
  6. Wayne Schiess, Beginning with But, Austin Lawyer 11 (July/August 2013).

Obituary: WITNESSETH

Witnesseth, Confusing, Long-Lived Legal Archaism

The word witnesseth, a legal term used in deeds, contracts, and other formal documents, passed away Monday after a decades-long decline and what some say were well-deserved attacks. Those close to the word said it died in a legal form pulled up on a smart phone in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was 587 years old.

One of the most enduring Elizabethan archaisms, witnesseth’s late decline represented a steep fall from its heyday. It rode high on the fear of “changing the form” for more than two centuries. It prospered despite challenges, such as one raised in 1744, when a legal scribe first asked a lawyer, “what is this word, and why are there spaces between the letters?”

The deceased in a recent photo.

Witnesseth maintained its entrenched position in legal documents, although it was more and more often relegated to land deeds, until at least 1957, when a busy real-estate lawyer in Waukeegan, Illinois, inadvertently left it out of a draft deed, which a secretary dutifully typed up. Yet the real-estate transaction closed without incident, and witnesseth began its slow decent.

Rumors persist among some hostile to witnesseth that the reports of its death are premature and that it is lying low in old formbooks and county real-estate filings, waiting to be recognized and used again.

All 12 Tips for Concision

Since July 2015 I’ve been sporadically posting a series of tips for concision in legal writing. I suggested a total twelve, and links to all of them are collected here:

1. Don’t fear possessives.

2. Remove redundancy.

3. Diminish sesquipedalian vocabulary. (Reduce big words.)

4. Cut throat-clearing phrases.

5. Eliminate excessive prepositions.

6. Deflate compound prepositions.

7. Omit needless details.

8. Edit for wordiness.

9. Make independent clauses participial phrases.

10. Use pro-verbs or elide verbs.

11. Assess passive voice.

12. Revise unnecessary nominalizations.

Tips for Concision 12: Revise unnecessary nominalizations.

A nominalization is a noun that could have been a verb.

For example, when nominalized, the verb pay becomes payment. To function as a verb, the noun payment needs help, so we write make a payment. Legal writing is full of these nominalized constructions:

  • enter a settlement > settle
  • bring suit against > sue
  • provide an explanation > explain
  • achieve a reduction > reduce
  • conduct an analysis > analyze

Nominalizations are so common in legal writing that experts have coined plainer terms:

Nominalizations aren’t wrong, just wordy. We lawyers like them, I think, because they sound serious and formal. But when you have a choice, the plain verb form is always more concise than the nominalized form. What’s more, the verb form is more energetic. So when you implement a revision (revise) for nominalizations, you get vigor as well as concision.

 

More on “weak” legal writing

When asked to define “weak” legal writing, I began listing traits that I think make legal writing weak. I continue my list here.

Abstraction. Legal writers sometimes focus heavily on concepts and principles and ideas—instead of concrete things and actions.

Over-intensifying. In trying to persuade, some writers overuse intensifiers like blatantly, clearly, completely, extremely, highly, obviously, plainly, substantially, totally, very, and wholly.

Avoidance of personal pronouns. Although not always appropriate, many client memos could use you/your and we/us/our instead of proper names, initials, or abstract descriptors. So this [on law-firm letterhead]:

  • Great Mountain Savings Association (“GMSA”) has requested that this firm address whether Board Resolution 17-009 (“BR 009”) was validly approved. BR 009 was approved on …

becomes this

  • You asked us whether Board Resolution 17-009 was validly approved. The Resolution was approved on …

Backing in. Too often, we begin a document, a section of a document, or a paragraph with background information or with the first event chronologically—then build to the key point. Legal writing is usually better front-loaded: key point first, background second. So this

  • You asked us whether Board Resolution 17-009 was validly approved. The Resolution was approved on …

becomes this

  • You asked us whether Board Resolution 17-009 was validly approved. Our opinion is that the Resolution was validly approved. The background and analysis follow. …

Missing chances to tell stories. We legal writers are sometimes guilty of dumping information on top of information when structuring the content as a story would be more inviting—and compelling. It’s not always possible to turn a tax memo into a pleasant narrative, but many legal documents have a statement of facts that could be told as a story.