Pity for the Poor Conjunctive Adverb “However”

Most folks know quite well that just about every word has more than one meaning. A dictionary is not necessary to figure this out. A moment of reflection on just about any word demonstrates this quickly enough.

The shifts in meaning in many of the words we use are often accompanied by shifts in form, but rarely does this cause any confusion. Most native English speakers seem to pick up on the differences with little trouble and register the new meaning and new form without pausing to consider how illogical this is.

The word “book,” for example, usually calls to mind the noun with the cover, pages and all that printing in between, but it could easily be used as a verb when you schedule a flight to Hawai’i or Singapore or Roswell, New Mexico. I am sure just about anyone could come up with a few dozen words with multiple meanings and multiple forms in a little less than a minute or two.

One word that gets caught up in this multiple meaning and multiple form melee is the word “however.” This seems a bit odd at first since the two different forms that exist have similar meanings but are used differently. In most instances, “however” is used as a conjunctive adverb, which is basically a fancy grammatical term used to confuse students and please grammarians. But the important thing to notice is that “however” is an adverb, not a conjunction like “and,” “but” and “or.” As an adverb, it is not essential to the clause it modifies and could be either moved around the sentence or eliminated without doing much harm to the sentence. So these sentences would be perfectly acceptable:

Jim, however, was late for the party.
Jim was late for the party, however.
Jim was late for the party.

The “however” in the first sentence is joining the meaning of the sentence with a previous sentence; it is not, however, joining it grammatically to the previous sentence. Joining the sentences grammatically would require a conjunction in the form of a either a coordinating conjunction or a subordinating conjunction. Both of these sentences use such conjunctions and would also be acceptable:

Terry wanted to be early for the party, but Jim was late.
Terry showed up early for the party even though Jim was late.

In these sentences, two different types of conjunctions are joining the clause “Jim was late” to the clause right before it. The first conjunction “but” is a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses. Notice that each half of the sentence could stand alone, but the coordinating conjunction glues them together. The second conjunction “even though” is a subordinating conjunction that makes the second clause into a dependent clause and then joins it to the independent clause in front of it.

One of the more common errors I see in the writing of educated people is the use of the adverb “however” as a coordinating conjunction. They might be trying to get across the basic idea of either one of these examples and would come up with something such as this:

Terry wanted to be early to the party, however, Jim was late.
Terry showed up early to the party, however, Jim was late.

Both of these are wrong because they use an adverb as if it were a coordinating conjunction. One way to tell that “however” is an adverb is to try to move it around the clause it is in. Most, but not all, adverbs can move around in a sentence without doing any real harm. In the clause “Jim was late,” you could move the “however” to different positions without doing any harm to the clause itself. That flexibility is a clear sign that “however” is an adverb and not a conjunction.

In these cases, both halves of the sentences are independent clauses and need to be punctuated with periods or joined with coordinating conjunctions and commas. These revisions would be more acceptable:

Terry wanted to be early to the party. Jim, however, was late.
Terry showed up early to the party, but Jim was late.

Using “however” as a coordinating conjunction is fairly easy to forgive since “however” is a conjunctive adverb and not a run-of-the-mill adverb such as “wildly” or “quickly” or “simply.” What conjunctive adverbs do is connect the content of one sentence to the content of the previous sentence or sentences. Words such as “therefore” and “then” and “furthermore” are such adverbs and create similar problems for many people. They cannot, however, join the sentences grammatically. [This web site on grammar gets this basic point all wrong:  Everything English “Subordinating Conjunctions” .]

Even if the conjunctive adverb is joining the sentence to the one before it, the union is only at the level of the meaning in the sentence and not at the level of  grammar. And, as we all know, grammar is more important than meaning, far more important.

That would seem simple enough and not worth the labor of writing a new blog entry. But there is more, much more, because “however” can, in fact, be a conjunction.

(You might be sitting there thinking, “Ha, I knew Joe was wrong. He just proved it himself. “However” can be a conjunction. He’s such a turd.” But you would be only half right.)

“However” can be a conjunction but only a subordinating conjunction. This usage is less common that the adverbial usage and probably less common than the erroneous usage as a coordinating conjunction, but it seems to be quite important since it tends to show up in the writings of some of the more advanced writers I have read. So this is how it is used as a subordinating conjunction:

Terry dances however she likes.
Terry needs to let John dress for the party however he wants.

The word “however” sets up the underlined dependent clause and joins it to the independent clause right before it. Notice that in these two sentences the word “however” cannot move around the second clause. You could not do this, for example:

Terry dances she however wants.
Terry needs to let John dress himself for the party he wants however.

“However” cannot move in these sentences because it is not an adverb. It is a conjunction, and conjunctions do not move without messing everything up. You can see the same basic structure in sentences that use subordinating conjunctions that are more widely recognized:

Terry dances a lot because she loves music.
Terry needs to let John dress himself for the party even if he wear plaid again.

Notice that “because” and “even if” both set up dependent clauses, and neither of them can be moved around their dependent clause without making a grammatical mess. You would not write these sentences, for example:

Terry dances a lot she because loves music.
Terry needs to let John dress himself for the party he wears plaid again even if.

So this should all be simple enough. The word “however” should be included among those icons of subordinating conjunctions. We should be able to punch “subordinating conjunction” into our search engines and come up with a list that includes “however” alongside “since,”  “when,” “before,” and many others.

Not so fast. There is a problem. This is grammar, so there is always a problem.

With all the other subordinating conjunctions, you can make the sentence do a little dance and switch the positions of the dependent and independent clauses for stylistic purposes. You could, for example, rewrite those earlier sentences:

Because Terry loves music, she dances a lot.
Even if he wears plaid again, Terry needs to let John dress himself for the party.

Both options are fine. The only differences are stylistic differences. But when we try to do this with the examples using “however,” things fall apart:

However Terry wants, she dances.
However John wants, Terry needs to let John dress himself.

These simply do not work.

The problem is that “however” is doing something more than setting up a dependent clause. It is also turning the entire dependent clause into an adverb to describe how Terry dances and how John dresses himself.

“However” ends up being quite the peculiar word. When “however” is used correctly, it is most often used as an adverb that makes a weak-hearted attempt to be a conjunction and join two sentences, but it always fails to do so at a deeper level. When it actually is used as a subordinating conjunction and tries to leave its adverbial ways behind, it ends up turning an entire clause into an adverb.


About Joseph Pendleton

I am the Reading Specialist--Basic Skills at Victor Valley College. I teach the reading courses in the English Department and the basic English grammar courses in the Basic Skills Department. My primary interests as a teacher is in how students retain the information and skills we teach them. View all posts by Joseph Pendleton

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