October 31, 2006

If they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all

Yes, I know: stated so baldly, this zero-tolerance policy (ZT-1) sounds extreme, not to mention unlikely to be effective unless constantly and severely enforced.  Nevertheless, advisers on style sometimes end up following ZT-1, and also the related policy

ZT-2: If doing it sometimes gets them in trouble, they should be told not to do it at all.

ZT-1 is one of the factors that leads to the proscription Avoid Passive; student writers use passive clauses more than their teachers think they should, so they're told to avoid them wherever possible.  ZT-2 is one of the factors that leads to the proscription Avoid Pronouns; student writers (well, actually, all writers) occasionally produce sentences with unclear or incorrect pronominal reference, so some teachers, remarkably, tell them not to use pronouns.

Recently it occurred to me that ZT-1 might be part of the history of what I have come to call Garner's Rule (after Bryan Garner, who is its most vigorous current exponent), proscribing sentence-initial linking however, as in "You may bring paper to the exam.  However, you are allowed to bring only one page."

First, rather a lot of background about Garner's Rule.  (And an acknowledgment: what I'm saying here represents joint work by me and Douglas Kenter.)

Garner gives a full statement of the rule in his 1999 book of advice for legal writers, The Winning Brief:

Don't use However to start a sentence: use But instead, move However inside the sentence, or collapse the preceding sentence into an Although-clause. (p. 245)

Replacing however by but is what he recommends first (and most often), so from here on I'll use "Garner's Rule" to refer to the stronger form:

Don't use However to start a sentence: use But instead.

Garner's Rule has a long history, going back at least to -- wait for it -- William Strunk Jr.'s 1918 Elements of Style, which says (as Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum noted on Language Log a while back) sternly and uncompromisingly:

However.  In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause.

(The proscription is softened some in the later Strunk & White version: "The word serves better when not in first position.")

Garner's The Winning Brief assembles advice from over a hundred years that variously recommends using discourse connectives in general (certainly good advice), proscribes sentence-initial however, explains this proscription, argues that there's nothing wrong with beginning sentences with but (keep this in mind), and recommends a fix for sentence-initial linking however (usually either replacement by but or moving however inside the sentence). 

So you're asking: What's wrong with sentence-initial however?  Garner tells us, in his 1998 Dictionary of Modern American Usage, that it

isn't a grammatical error; it's merely a stylistic lapse, the word But ordinarily being much preferable...  The reason is that However... is a ponderous way of introducing a contrast, and it leads to unemphatic sentences. (p. 342)

The objection is aesthetic, a matter of personal taste and judgment.  Garner finds sentence-initial however "ponderous" and "unemphatic", and a number of other writers agree with him -- for instance, Lucile Vaughan Payne, in her 1965 The Lively Art of Writing (cited by Garner in The Winning Brief), who disarmingly admits that it's all rather mysterious:

A student writer will almost invariably give however first position in a sentence...But [this word] works best if it is inside the sentence.  Just exactly why this position is best is one of those stylistic mysteries that can't really be explained.  It simply sounds better that way.  And the importance of sound can't be dismissed, even in silent reading. (pp. 85-6)

(Note the reference to student writers.  I'll come back to that.)

However, still other writers have different tastes and (rightly) object to having their judgments dismissed by airy assertions about what sounds good, ponderous, or (un)emphatic.  (I'm not much of a user of sentence-initial however myself, as I noted in an earlier posting, but I see no reason to impose my personal style on other people.)

Where do these aesthetic judgments come from?  Mark and Geoff suggested that Strunk's stylistic preferences came from the writing he was exposed to as a young man.  This makes sense; you develop your sense of style from the models around you.

You also develop your sense of style from explicit teaching and advice.  Once a proscription against sentence-initial however was articulated, it had a life of its own and could be passed from one generation of writers and teachers, in communities of stylistic practice, to the next.  Like other fashions in taste, it diffuses.

Is diffusion a sufficient explanation for the stylistic tastes of Garner and others?  Maybe so, but I can think of two other factors that might contribute to a dispreference for sentence-initial however.  Before I discuss them -- yes, we're going to get back to ZT-1 -- I want to take up, and dismiss, another argument against sentence-initial linking however that I've seen in net discussions: that it introduces an ambiguity.

The argument goes as follows: when you read a sentence beginning with however, or hear one, you don't know whether this is linking however or concessive however (as in "However you got that dog, you can't keep it" or "However many times you tell me that, I won't believe it").  So the sentence so far is ambiguous.  On the other hand, initial but would be unambiguous.  [Update: Bruce Rusk writes to point out that even this but is (temporarily) ambiguous, thanks to the fact that there's an exclusionary prepositional idiom but for 'if it weren't for the existence of', as in these contrasting pairs: "Writing well is not easy.  But for grammarians it is impossible." (contrastive coordinating but) vs. "Writing well is not easy. But for grammarians, it would be impossible." (exclusionary prepositional but for).  Potential ambiguity is everywhere.]

This is an extraordinarily silly argument.  To start with, as long as the writer is punctuating properly, sentence-initial linking however is unambiguously signaled by a following comma, and in speech it's usually associated with the prosody that the written comma indicates.  There's no ambiguity even at the first word.  Then, once you get past the first word, any unsureness on your part as to which however was intended is quickly eliminated by the following material.

I believe that ambiguity-avoidance arguments for particular stylistic choices are always flawed, but this one is particularly lame, since a huge proportion of sentences begin with words whose identity can be determined only when the sentence is continued: "he's" could be "he is" or "he has", "that" could be a complementizer or a demonstrative, "is" could be copular be or the be of the progressive or the be of the passive, "later" could be an adjective or an adverb, and so on, endlessly.  If we objected to this sort of local indeterminacy for a "however", we would be objecting to almost everything.

Now to two considerations that actually might contribute to a feeling against initial however.

The first consideration is a kind of "division of labor" argument for initial but over however.  Here's how it goes:

1.  The linker but occurs sentence-initially but not sentence-internally.

2.  The linker however can occur in either place.

3.  The labor of signaling contrast could then be divided between the two linkers if however was restricted to sentence-internal position: but only sentence-initially, however only sentence-internally.

Ok, class, where have we seen this argument before?  Yes, in Fowler's famous suggestion (we've now posted so much on the That Rule, or as I now prefer to call it, Fowler's Rule, that I hardly know which posting to link to, but here's one of my favorites) that the labor of signaling relative clauses might be divided between that and which:

1.  The relativizer that occurs in restrictive relative clauses but not in nonrestrictive relative clauses.

2.  The relativizer which can occur in either place.

3.  The labor of signaling relatives could then be divided between the two relativizers if which was restricted to nonrestrictive relative clauses: that only in restrictives, which only in nonrestrictives.

Perfectly parallel reasoning in the two cases.  If you're the sort of person who likes the division-of-labor argument for Fowler's Rule -- and a great many people do -- then you should also like that argument for Garner's Rule.  I've never really understood why anyone would want to trade in variation for complementary distribution, so I don't buy the argument in either of these cases (or any others).  But tastes evidently differ.

Finally, we get to ZT-1.  Recall Payne's remark that student writers (she means, for the most part, college student writers) "invariably" put however in initial position.  Other writing teachers have remarked to me that their students are very fond of however as a discourse connective, in particular as a marker of contrast, and that they almost always put it in initial position, and my own experience teaching accords with these observations.  We could, of course, be wrong; possibly no one has studied the matter systematically, just because everyone is pretty sure what the facts are.

In any case, there seems to be a general belief among writing teachers that college students overuse initial however.  This would lead them to be prejudiced against it and, in some cases, to advise their students not to use it at all.  That's an instance of ZT-1.

I'll leave for a follow-up posting the question of why college students might like the discourse connective however so much -- there's a delicious irony in there -- and why they prefer it in initial position.  If you are a college student yourself, you might think about your own practice and the reasons for it.  If you have college students handy, you might ask them.

For now, I'll content myself with a few comments on zero tolerance policies, in general and with respect to stylistic choices.

Zero tolerance policies can be found many places: Alcoholics Anonymous and school drug policies, for example.  They require enforcement, either informal (AA) or institutionalized (school drug policies), and it's not clear how effective they are in eliminating the targeted behavior.  In the case of stylistic choices, the goal should really be not to eliminate one of the choices, but only to reduce its use, either in sheer frequency (in favor of a greater variety of choices) or in potentially problematic situations.  ZT-1 and ZT-2 are overkill.

They are also almost surely ineffective, at least if the goal is to get the students writing clear, smooth, interesting prose.  One easy response to a prohibition against initial however is to follow the strong form of Garner's Rule: whenever you find yourself tempted to begin a sentence with linking however, replace it with but.  The result is that overuse of however becomes overuse of but.  To my mind, this is no advance (and I'm a big but-user).  Another easy response is to just delete the however, thereby much reducing the number of explicit discourse connectives, certainly not a result we want.

There are techniques that could be effective.  A piano student who's inclined to overuse the sustain pedal -- it can cover a lot of finger sins -- might be told to play some pieces without the sustain pedal, either a few times or for some period, after which the sustain pedal is reintroduced.  Similarly a sports player who's inclined to favor one particular move very heavily might be told not to use it, either for one practice or for some period, after which the ban is lifted.  The aim is to expand a repertoire.

This could easily be done in writing classes: not a lifetime ban on initial however, but a short-term ban, during which alternatives are offered, perhaps even required: "Your essay must have at least two occurrences of sentence-initial but, two of sentence-internal however, and two occurrences of other discourse connectives".  Writing teachers already give assignments that make the students follow special rules, requiring or prohibiting particular bits of form or content, either in their own writing or in editing material provided by the teacher.  The discourse adverbial however could easily be folded into such assignments.  (And probably has been, by teachers not totally under the sway of Garner's Rule.)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 31, 2006 03:18 PM