“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.’” Why that advice? Strunk and White believed that when however comes first, it means “in whatever way” or “to whatever extent.” 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.” Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage declares that “there is no absolute rule for the placement of however.” And Terri LeClercq says you may “use however in any position.”
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.
- William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 48 (4th ed. 2000).
- Id. at 49.
- Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 415 (3d ed. 2011).
- Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage 515 (1994).
- Terri LeClercq, Expert Legal Writing 180 (1995).
- Wayne Schiess, Beginning with But, Austin Lawyer 11 (July/August 2013).