February 22, 2005

Fossilized prejudices about "however"

Mark establishes that William Strunk was prejudiced in favor of the word order Birds, however, can fly over the synonymous However, birds can fly. In Strunk's Horrid Little Book, the latter usage is forbidden. E. B. White revised the Horrid Little Book (which he had purchased when he took a course from Strunk at Cornell in 1919) in 1957, and kept this prohibition. I'd like to suggest that we can perhaps make a guess at where Strunk and White got their prejudices if we look at a few books that were published around the relevant time.

Strunk was born in 1869, and White thirty years later. If White ever read scary stories as a teenager, he would surely have read Bram Stoker's Dracula, first published in 1897 (when Strunk was 28 and would have very largely formed his ideas about what was good English style). We can search the text of the book for the following string to find sentence-initial occurrences of however:


And we can search for this string to get the parenthetical occurrences in second position, which White preferred:

, however,

The results: Dracula contains 79 occurrences of second-position however, and none at all of the sentence-initial ones.

A year later, in 1898, H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds had been published. If White read any science fiction as a teenager, he surely read that. There are 10 occurrences of second-position however, and none sentence-initial.

Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness came out when White was three, in 1902. It's just the sort of serious novel a young man headed for Cornell might have read, and Strunk would certainly have known it. There are 3 occurrences of second-position however, and none sentence-initial.

The next year, Jack London's The Call of the Wild was published, with 4 occurrences of second-position however, and none sentence-initial.

And so on. I won't continue; quantitative glottopsychiatric investigation of the wellsprings of curmudgeonly usage prejudices really does not interest me very much. But what I am suggesting is that if you look at works published around the time of White's birth and in the early years of his lifetime, works published when Strunk was in college and early in his teaching career, you find good statistical evidence that literary English really did favor however in second position but not first position in sentences.

Strunk, then, was simply insisting that the use of English by others ought to conform to the statistical patterns prevalent in the literature he knew. And fifty years later White was sticking to the same dogma. The grammar of however is not so simple, though: the word did sometimes occur sentence-initially in the 19th and early 20th century, as Mark's investigations showed; it just wasn't so frequent, and Strunk and White missed the subtlety of a word with two competing positional tendencies showing different frequencies.

The battle against the less frequent variant was ultimately lost, of course: in The Wall Street Journal by the late 1980s, despite the influence of the Horrid Little Book on journalists, we get about 60 second-position to 40 first-position occurrences of however. But it was a quixotic battle about nothing of any consequence — two men's desire for an utterly unimportant minor statistical detail of style concerning adverb placement in the literature they knew to stay like they once were. They had an option that most of us don't have: they could include a dogmatic injunction in a published work on how to write, a work that happened to turn into a bestseller. But it still didn't work. And they could just as well have included the opposite prescription, and perhaps have biased things the other way. This isn't about English grammar or about good writing style. It's about orneriness and crotchetiness and the petty conservativism of people who regard themselves as guardians of some sort of literary establishment but haven't really got a very good eye for syntactic generalizations.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 22, 2005 12:49 AM