Get your mind out of the gutter. The above title isn’t an innuendo. Probably.
Today, I’m going to convince you of a general principle I’ve followed over the last year as an editor of the Opinion page, and that I follow now as a writing partner at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. Today, I’m going to convince you that, as a general principle, you should use the word “but” in place of the word “however.”
But don’t just take my word for it, and don’t think that I’m just some pedant here to lecture you about style and usage. I’m writing this because I care about you. Yes, you. Not you. You.
The word “however” is slow. It’s heavy like Thanksgiving dinner. Add a comma, add a pause, which you’ve been told to do since high school, which is, incidentally, what you sound like you’re in when you use “however,” and the word gets even slower, even heavier. “However” draws attention to itself. It takes away from the point you’re about to make, probably a point of contrast given that you’ve just introduced that thought with “however.” Why make the reader wait? Why detract from the meat of what you’re saying?
But the word “but” is fast. It’s light and airy like a profiterole. Leave out the comma, leave out the pause, which you’ll protest is grammatically necessary because you’ve been told to include it since high school, which is, incidentally, what you sound like you’re in when you use “however,” and the word remains light and airy, quick and functional. “But” is functional because it doesn’t get in the way. It just leads the reader to the point you’re about to make, probably a point of contrast given that you wanted to introduce that thought with “however.” Because it’s a point of contrast, it’s probably an interesting point — I’m excited to read it. Why make me wait? Why distract me from the meat of what you’re saying?
“But Adrian,” you protest, “it isn’t grammatically correct to start a sentence with but! It just isn’t allowed!” I direct you to Merriam and Webster: “Firstly, has it ever been wrong to begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but?’ No, it has not.”
“You are out of order!” the pedantic English professor screams, steam coming out of his ears (it’s obviously a man given what he’s about to say and how wrong he’s about to be.) “Strunk and White, those gods of style and usage, are turning over in their graves, you insolent whippersnapper!”
From Strunk and White: “But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.”
Surprise! You can start sentences with “and,” “but,” “so,” “because” — and you already do so in normal speech all the time. Sure, you don’t always want to write how you speak, but when these words improve clarity and make it easier on the reader, shouldn’t they appear in our writing more often than clunky and ugly words like “furthermore,” however” and “accordingly?” So I say to you, dear reader, that as a general principle — as opposed to a rule — you should use “but” in place of “however,” at the beginning of sentences.
However. “However” shouldn’t be banished from our language completely. I once had a professor who, because “however” draws so much attention to itself and is so heavy, slow and horribly gauche, would put it at the beginning of a paragraph as its own entity. I think this usage is effective because it is taking “however” on its own terms and deploying it on those terms. Sometimes, you need a word that calls attention to itself, that calls attention to a dramatic contrast. “However” serves that purpose.
It’s also appropriate to use “however” in the middle of sentences. It gives the reader a chance to catch their breath and to emphasize contrast a lá Chief Justice John Roberts who, in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights Inc., used “however” six times midsentence (“Certain law professors participating as amici, however, argue that the Government and FAIR misinterpret the statute”). He began sentences with “but” five times.
There are more important subjects than the one this column addresses. I confess: perhaps I am a bit of a pedant. Perhaps I’m full of it. Perhaps you should continue to use “however,” and perhaps the fact that my head wants to explode everytime I see “however” indicates more of a problem with me than with our current stylistic habits.
But the broader point I’m trying to make is about making things easy for the reader. The reader is king, queen, monarch, the reader is the alpha and the omega. When you read an academic article impenetrable by virtue of its “academic-ese,” a Trump lawsuit incomprehensible by virtue of its legalese, a product warning indecipherable by virtue of its “corporate-ese,” you will find that the authors of these documents have failed you, the reader, and have instead served their own ends by keeping you from fully understanding what they’re saying.
Obfuscation is the goal of people who want to come off as smarter than they really are, the goal of tyrants and the goal of corporate overlords. Speak plainly and write plainly. Using “but” instead of “however,” at the beginning of sentences is a small step toward doing just that.
Adrian Rivera is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column usually runs every other week. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .