Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How to improve writing (no. 44)

[Mark Trail, May 8, 2013.]

When Mark Trail and Wes Thompson went off in a plane to “look at sheep,” leaving “the girls” (Mark’s wife Cherry, Wes’s wife Shelley) alone at camp, trouble was sure to follow. Trouble, one might say, was in the air : the plane crashed, and Mark and Wes have been stuck in the mountains for many days’ worth of comics.

Trouble is also in this panel’s dialogue, in the form of the clunky however that begins Wes’s sentence. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White offer good advice: “Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is ‘nevertheless.’ The word usually serves better when not in first position.” That sounds like a matter of style. But Strunk and White then confuse matters by seeming to suggest a prohibition: “When however comes first, it means ‘in whatever way’ or ‘to whatever extent.’”

Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage takes up however with greater clarity:

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.
And re: today’s Mark Trail, I’d add that no one talks like that, especially not with a broken foot. I have revised the panel to eliminate the ponderous however and add a bit more drama:

[Mark Trail revised, May 8, 2013.]

How I wish I could travel back to student days and remove howevers from the beginnings of my sentences. But it’s what I was taught as an element of intelligent writing: independent clause – semicolon – conjunctive adverb, any conjunctive adverb – comma – independent clause. O ponderousness!

“Let’s go,” by the way, is an instance of the hortatory subjunctive.

Related reading
Other How to improve writing posts
Other Mark Trail posts

[This post is no. 44 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose. Cherry made tea this past Monday.]

comments: 2

Rachel said...

I wrote a paper this week and it seemed that I used "however" 100 times. I went back and realized it was only 3, but I still edited it out each of those times. Dramatic improvement.

Michael Leddy said...

Right on. :)