Here’s an e-mail (or email — the difference being the subject of yet another editorial conversation!) exchange between senior editor Mary Bagg and project coordinator Bill Siever, both veterans of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, and one of our copy editors. This discussion will give some insight into the details we handle here, and the care and good humor that go into getting our articles into shape for publication.

Hi all,

I know you’ve been waiting all day for the skinny on “however vs but”: (Karen, considering we think alike on this issue I thought I would cc you for the “fun” of what follows. Here it is.

Let me first say that I was once told by my favorite English professor (my husband Bob) never to start a sentence with “however.” I have since followed his advice and now he trusts me to edit his prose.

But I am extremely sorry to report that according to the guy who blogs on, this is a matter of personal style, not a grammatical rule. (I knew as much because the likes of Strunk and White and several other style guides use examples that begin with “however.” Here’s a link to the blog; scroll down to the entry for May 7, 2007; the initial advice is silly to my mind, but the last paragraph I found fascinating, so here it is:

You might have been told never to open a sentence with however. This is a stylistic preference, not a grammatical one. The word for however in Latin is autem. In classical Latin the word autem always takes the postpositive position; that is, it never comes first.  The postpositive use of however is modeled on the Latin use of autem  because it is considered more elegant, not because it is more correct.

Here’s a little passage from Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook:

“Thus as you gingerly tiptoe around the landmines that dot the prescriptive-descriptive battlefield, you will encounter dozens of “rules” that were never really rules, just the personal preferences or prejudices of someone bold enough to proclaim them rules.

[That would be me in the CE Manual regarding “however.”] Despite what may have been drilled into you (or one of your authors) in high school, all of the following taboos are routinely broken (even scoffed at) by well-respected writers and editors and by experts in contemporary usage:

  • Never begin a sentence with and, but, or, also, or however.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Never split an infinitive.
  • Never use which to refer to an entire preceding clause.

But maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Or perhaps my sole intention is to further addle your brain by breaking the rules, which would be a despicable betrayal of your trust. However, even if you should happen to feel betrayed, it is now time to face the vexatious creatures one by one.”

So, here’s my final thought. Part of the reason I don’t like to begin a sentence with “however” when it is used to mean “but” is because it requires a comma, which to me makes for a choppy beginning, whereas with “but” you just glide on ahead. But that’s my personal preference. I’ll leave it up to Karen and Bill whether or not to take the “offending” anti-however “rule” out of the CE manual or not.

That was nice break, now back to gingerly tiptoeing around the landmines in another article!


On Apr 28, 2009, at 4:57 PM, Bill Siever wrote:
Hi Mary and Linda,
Mary, I was going over a nicely copyedited article by Linda, and I noticed that she changed the “but” in the following to “however”:
“some spiritual environmentalists believe that they can ritually commune with other species; and some imaginative voices attempt to speak for future generations. But who is qualified to judge whether these are accurate and legitimate representations?”
I warned her that due to a childhood trauma you detest the word “however” at the beginning of sentences. However, I’m not exactly sure of the rationale; Linda says using “but” at the beginning of a sentence drives her nuts. But I don’t know. Personally, I think it sounds best to say “I’m not exactly sure of the rationale, however.”
I’m leaving shortly but I’ll leave this discussion to gather steam in the ether, to greet me in the morning. Let me know what you both think!

From: Linda Aspen-Baxter
Sent: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 4:46 PM
To: Bill Siever
Subject: RE: Ethics article for review
Thank you, Bill. My learning curve continues. I will watch the use of “however.” The use of “but” at the beginning of a sentence drives me nuts as an English teacher. I worked so hard to get students writing in complete sentences that this one always grabs my attention.

From: Bill Siever
Sent: April-28-09 2:22 PM
To: Linda Aspen-Baxter
Subject: Ethics article for review
Hi Linda,
Just a little feedback on this one – very nicely done! You’re right, that is a well written article. Usually anything remotely related to philosophy makes my head hurt – not my favorite subject in college. I usually lose it after the first use of “meta-.”
No need to do anything with this – I’ll delete my comments from the text and send it on its merry way.
Bill Siever
Project Coordinator, The Sustainability Project
Berkshire Publishing
120-122 Castle Street
Great Barrington, MA 01230 U.S.A.
Tel +1 413 528 0206 | Skype billsiever | Fax +1 413 541 0076