October 10, 2013
Weekly Language Usage Tips: punctuating ‘however’
A reader writes:
I just wrote to my students:
Employers have a legitimate interest in lowering health care costs, however forced medical exams, fines, and other coercive tactics are not long-term solutions.
Employers have a legitimate interest in lowering health care costs; however, forced medical exams, fines, and other coercive tactics are not long-term solutions.
When “however” is used as a coordinate conjunction (synonymous with “but”), you are to use a semicolon before however and a comma after it.
Why is “however” punctuated differently from and, or, and but? I don’t know, but it is. My question to you is “why”?
I have the answer! I hate to use jargon in this newsletter—terminology can get in the way of comprehension, so even though I talked about ‘independent clauses’ and ‘coordinate conjunctions’ last week, I really try not to too often. But in this case, to answer the reader’s question, it is necessary. You’ll see why in a second.
The reader wants to know why we punctuate ‘however’ with a semicolon and a comma, but we don’t treat all coordinate conjunctions like that when they separate two independent clauses (two sentences smooshed into one).
There are just a couple of readers that I can think of who will know this answer. And the answer is this. ‘However’ is not a coordinate conjunction at all; ‘however’ is a conjunctive adverb, that is, an adverb acting as a conjunction. And conjunctive adverbs have their own set of rules for punctuation. Conjunctive adverbs, between two independent clauses, should be preceded by a semicolon and followed by a comma.
Here are some examples of conjunctive adverbs (I got them from the University of Wisconsin’s Writing Center).
also, however, otherwise, consequently, indeed, similarly, finally, furthermore, moreover, hence, nevertheless, thus, nonetheless
Wikipedia has a list too; it’s much, much longer than the sample I have here. There are lots of conjunctive adverbs floating about. By the way, you only punctuate them this way when you’re dealing with two independent clauses; otherwise, (NOTE: See how I did that?) the words are surrounded by commas (unless the word is at the beginning or the end of the sentence—I know that is probably obvious, but it had to be said).
But, although used very frequently, coordinate conjunctions are more rare. There are only seven coordinate conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. One way to remember them is to use the acronym, fanboys:
Depending on how they are being used, you can punctuate coordinate conjunctions with commas or with nothing at all.
But that’s a story for another day.