But versus However to start a sentence


In answering a recent question, Tolley told us, "I teach my students, who are mostly beginning writers, never to begin a sentence with a conjunction or a conjunctive adverb. It is just too easy to let it become a habit in academic writing, and most immature writers fail to control their use of conjunctions in the primary position." A a matter pedogogy, I understand and agree with Tolley. I'm also glad that Tolley includes "conjunctive adverbs" in his caution -- in part, because my teachers ignored that important point.


I was taught to merely substitute "however" for "but" in the primary position. This substitution always seemed odd to me, but you see it all too often in academic writing. Recently, I've discovered that many authorities believe that "but" is actually preferable to "however" in the first position.


Lucile Vaughan Payne, The Lively Art of Writing (1965), pages 85-86

A student writer will almost invariable give however first position in a sentence …. In any case, however works best if it is inside the sentence. Just exactly why this position is best is one of those stylistic mysteries that can’t really be explained. It simply sounds better that way. And the importance of sound can’t be dismissed, even in silent reading.

Occasionally you will find yourself with a however that simply refuses to be tucked into a sentence comfortably. In that case, change it to but and put it in first position.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009), pages 121-122

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).

Garner’s Modern American Usage, page 428

However: It seems everyone has heard that sentences should not begin with this word—not, that is, when a contrast is intended. But doing so isn't a grammatical error; if merely a stylistic lapse, the word But or Yet ordinarily being much preferable. The reason is that However—three syllables followed by a commas is a ponderous way of introducing a contrast, and it leads to unemphatic sentences.


But when used in the sense "in whatever way” or “to whatever extent," however (not followed by a comma) is unimpeachable at the beginning of a sentence. E.g.: “However we manage to perform the feat of perceiving productive relationship, we may be thankful that we can." Max Black. The Labyrinth of Language 67 (1968).


Assuming that however isn't put at the front of a sentence, the word has the effect of emphasizing whatever precedes it. If you say "Jane, however, wasn't able to make the trip” you're presumably contrasting Jane with others who were able to go. But if the story is about Jane alone, and the fact that she had been hoping to make a trip, the sentence should be “Jane wasn't able, however, to make the trip" Some otherwise good writers don't seem to understand this straightforward point of rhetoric.


Just because "but" is preferred over "however" does not mean that we should overuse this form. I do wonder, however, whether we should give a greater emphasis to discouraging "however" in the primary position. What do the other experts think?  

asked Sep 26 '12 at 17:19 Jeff Pribyl Grammarly Fellow

2 answers


When an emphasizing pause is desired in association with a contrast, "However," including the comma, seems reasonable, natural, 'spoken,' and useful at the beginning of a sentence that contrasts with the previous material.

link comment answered May 31 '13 at 18:30 Loren Demaree New member

Personally, I think both are acceptable.  The trouble though is when they are used unnecessarily.  That is to say, when the sentence that they begin could easily be linked to the sentence before it. 


The Economist.com Style Guide favors "but" over "however." Unfortunately, I see a lot of unnecessary wordiness in the posts as a result.  Here are some examples of what I've found: 


link comment answered Oct 30 '12 at 12:55 Kimberly Expert

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