Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Dr. Watson’s prose, however


[The Hound of the Baskervilles (dir. Sidney Lanfield, 1939).]

Doctor John H. Watson is writing to Sherlock Holmes:

There is something about this fellow Stapleton I don’t like. However, his charming step-sister has invited us to dine with them at their house, across the moor.
Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016) on 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; it’s merely a stylistic lapse, the word But or Yet ordinarily being much preferable. . . . The reason is that However — three syllables followed by a comma — is a ponderous way of introducing a contrast, and it leads to unemphatic sentences.
Garner cites varied authorities on the wisdom of not leading with however . Better to begin with but or place however later in a sentence. A beautiful explanation from Sheridan Baker: “But is for the quick turn; the inlaid however for the more elegant sweep.” In a recent tweet Garner says that a sentence starting with however
shows something useful: you’re reading someone of only middling skill. It’s a shortcut litmus test. Truly.
Middling skill: that seems to describe Watson, or at least the Watson who appears in this film. The stuffiness of however suits him. Place the word later in the sentence and the difference is slight:
There is something about this fellow Stapleton I don’t like. His charming step-sister, however, has invited us to dine with them at their house, across the moor.
And because an inlaid however adds emphasis to whatever precedes it, Watson’s sentence may now carry an unintended implication: I don't like Stapleton, but his step-sister, wow. I will go to dinner because she will be there.

Change however to but  and the difference is sharp:
There is something about this fellow Stapleton I don’t like. But his charming step-sister has invited us to dine with them at their house, across the moor.
And now Watson’s meaning is once again clear: I don’t like this man, but duty and all that. I must go.

Dropping however at the start of sentences (and after semicolons) was, for me, a big step away from the ponderous habits of academic prose. Been there, did that. Done.

Related reading
All OCA Bryan Garner posts (Pinboard)

[As Garner points out, however at the start of a sentence is fine when it means “in whatever way” or “to whatever extent.”]

comments: 4

Richard Abbott said...

That's an interesting development of thought. I don't quite relate to it as a speaker of British English though! Which one assumes Holmes and Watson would be doing. My impulsive distinction between starting with But or However is that But signals essentially the same thought continued, just broken into a new sentence for convenience. But However signals a considered response after a pause for reflection, or else something deliberately set in opposition to the first thought.

Barnaby Capel-Dunn said...

Or, as Donald Trump would certainly say, there's something going on here.

Diane Schirf said...

That is amazing handwriting.

Michael Leddy said...

Richard, if I think too long about it, I’m going to writing However at the starts of sentences again. :)

Barnaby, I was reading about Dr. Watson, whose marital history is far from clear. I think there’s something going on.

Diane, yes, I was agog over the handwriting. Perhaps the studios had people to call on for handwriting scenes.