Don’t use “however” to start a sentence; use “but” instead.

This week the Scribe cautiously enters the “however” versus “but” debate—a debate that strains American civility even more than the “Obama” versus “Romney” and the “Less Filling” versus “Tastes Great” debates.   The Scribe’s position on this issue of great national importance (endorsed by Bryan Garner, by the way) is to use “however” inside a sentence, while using “but” to start a sentence.  Consider this example:

  • The Scribe drifted down the river in his canoe.  However, he was unaware of the waterfall ahead.

As you can see, the word “however” is languid, and conveys a relaxed and passive tone.  But when “but” is substituted for “however,” the tone become more punchy and aggressive:

  • The Scribe drifted down the river in his canoe.  But he was unaware of the waterfall ahead.

In both examples, the second sentence (danger Scribe!) contrasts with the first sentence (blissful Scribe!).  But the blissful Scribe premise is immediately and aggressively challenged by the use of “but” in the second example—giving it no time to linger and take root in the reader’s mind.

Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, gives the following spirited defense of the use of “but”:

It is a gross canard that beginning a sentence with but is stylistically slipshod.  In fact, doing so is highly desirable in any number of contexts, as countless style books have said (many correctly pointing out that but is more effective than however at the beginning of a sentence).

Consider these examples:

  • The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff.  However, the jury awarded no damages.
  • The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff, but awarded no damages.
  • The trial court concluded that it had personal jurisdiction over the defendant.  However, the Ninth Circuit concluded otherwise.
  • The trial court concluded that it had personal jurisdiction over the defendant.  But the Ninth Circuit concluded otherwise.
  • The Scribe was confident that his readers would choose his sentence style over Yoda’s.  However, his readers voted for Yoda in a landslide.
  • The Scribe was confident that his readers would choose his sentence style over Yoda’s.  But his readers voted for Yoda in a landslide.

As you can see, starting your sentence with “but” adds punch.  But beware: although using “but” to start a sentence is acceptable, don’t go overboard!  Use the word judiciously or it will stop having its emphatic effect.

That is all for now …

2 Comments

Filed under Style

2 responses to “Don’t use “however” to start a sentence; use “but” instead.

  1. Well put Scribe. However, I have to disagree!

  2. Kaci

    I agree with the Glass Objective. However, I will take this up with you personally in January!

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