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November 23, 2011

I have been marking a huge batch of OU essays these last couple of weeks, and one of the things I have noticed – not for the first time indeed  – is the mis-use, or at least a non-traditional use, of the word ‘however’. A large number of students write sentences that say things like,  “Fairy tales date from the Middle ages, however they were not intended for children at that time.” This looks like our old enemy the comma splice (using a comma to link two ungrammatically related clauses, where a full stop or semi-colon would be more appropriate) and I suppose it is a comma splice, but only because  the students have mistaken ‘however’ for a conjunction – a posh synonym for ‘but’. If ‘however’ was replaced by ‘but’ in the sentence above, there would be no comma splice and no problem.

The mistaking of ‘however’ for a conjunction is widespread and spreading. Last year, I had the job of monitoring tutor-marked Open University assignments – that is, I was assessing the assessors – and on one script I monitored, the tutor had actually ‘corrected’ a student who had used ‘however’ in its proper sense, to begin a new sentence. ‘Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction’, this educated woman with a PhD had written. I mentioned this on her feedback and very gently told her that ‘however’ is an adverb, not a conjunction; but in the next assignment of hers I monitored, she had, unbelievably, made exactly the same hyper-correction on a different student’s work. This time my feedback was a bit terser, and I advised her to look ‘however’ up in a dictionary if she didn’t believe it was an adverb.

Not that there is anything wrong with starting sentences with conjunctions anyway. It sounds like a nice simple rule with logic behind it, but good writers have always broken it. Dickens repeatedly broke it 150 years ago;  John Bunyan broke it 350 years ago.

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