How do you solve a problem like ‘however’?

Introduction

Maybe all those hours of reading and writing made the final stages of proofreading and copyediting seem too exhausting? Maybe after spending so long reading the same words over and over again, the ideas you were trying to get across seemed clear and easy to understand?

Whatever the reason, when you consider all the work you’ve done, the things that your proofreader/copyeditor/supervisor/lecturer/teacher have commented on just don’t seem to be THAT big a deal. It’s certainly not enough to justify going over all of it again and restructuring your content – which took a bloody long time to write in the first place – just to get rid of the occasional ‘however’. We have all been there.

I spent years being told that my work used ‘however’ too much and my sentences were too long and ‘muddy’. It wasn’t until I started proofreading and copyediting other people’s work that I finally understood what my teachers and lecturers were talking about. Here is an extract from an essay I wrote 18 months ago..

I decided to write this blog to offer some solutions to four common problems I’ve observed, in my editing career so far, that seem to need most intervention. I just wish I’d known about these solutions when I was a student!

Word crowding

This is when you see the same word (or a variation of it) used repeatedly in a number of consecutive sentences. For example…

The two culprits in this example are ‘company/ies’ and ‘positive/ly’. Re-using them is not only a mouthful, it makes the meaning and focus of the sentence much less clear. Having more variety in word usage makes it easier for the reader to navigate easily through your narrative. This is why a thesaurus (book or online) can be one of your best friends!

I used two main techniques to reduce the word crowding in this example. The first was to be specific wherever I can. In this case I used the specific name of the company (Bath Bombs ‘R’ Us). Not only does this reassure the reader exactly which company is being referred to, but it allows me to edit out the second ‘company’ and refer to ‘it’ instead.

The second technique was to simply erase ‘positively’, as it was obvious from the context that the influence of Bath Bombs ‘R’ Us was positive. Another way of avoiding word crowding would be to simply use a thesaurus and find a synonym for the word ‘positive’. This may seem straightforward, but finding a good alternative that preserves the original meaning is not always easy. Have faith, it can be time consuming, but will make your writing more fluent and engaging.

If you are struggling to see how much a word is repeated, the search tool in Microsoft Word can be incredibly useful. If you type the word into the search bar all the instances when the word or phrase has been used will be highlighted; therefore making it easier for you to see whether you need to add more variety to your vocabulary!

Using pronouns without antecedents

Just as a quick reminder, here’s what we mean by the terms pronoun and antecedent:

And…

So…

In this example Wendy is the antecedent and she is the pronoun. If we were to rewrite this example where we had a pronoun without an antecedent it would look something like this…

Although this is a complete sentence, we have no idea who she is. It can be tempting to use a pronoun to be more concise, and assume that the reader knows exactly who or what you’re talking about. But there’s no harm in making sure that you are always making things clear for your reader. The best feedback I got from a lecturer was “it’s not your reader’s job to piece together your argument. So make it clear and don’t rely on their common sense to understand what you’re saying.”

This habit can be really tricky to spot. Half the problem is not knowing that it’s something you tend to do in your writing. The safest option, in my view, is to always be as direct and specific as possible. But you can also use the search tool (shown at the end of the Word crowding section above) as a hack to find any pronouns you’ve used without an antecedent or where the antecedent is ambiguous.

Look up the last instance where you referred directly to the antecedent. Then you can judge whether it’s recent and direct enough that it will be clear to the reader what the pronoun is referring to. Even then it’s not a bad idea to think carefully before starting a sentence with a pronoun if it doesn’t have a clear indication who or what you’re referring to. Your editors and readers will certainly thank you for it!

Image credit: Canva

Commas, commas, commas

One of the most common problems across most writing is the overuse and misuse of the comma. There are two main reasons for this issue. First, it is a very subjective area. Different people have different views on what is considered ‘proper’ use of the comma. As a result everyone will have been told contrasting approaches to using commas in writing. One well known debate is the use of the Oxford comma; where a comma is used before ‘and’ or ‘or’ in the penultimate noun in a list (e.g. pink, red, yellow, and blue). Conscious style choices, like using the Oxford comma, are fine as long as you’re consistent across the piece.

The second reason is that writers who are less confident in grammar will be too scared to use other forms of punctuation (such as semicolons or en dashes); or maybe won’t even be aware that there are other forms of grammar that can be used in place of a comma.

[This is especially true when describing the so-called ‘comma splice’, where a comma is ‘incorrectly’ used to divide (splice) two perfectly good full sentences. This is one of the few areas of punctuation which verges on being ‘grammatical’. See this Prism-Clarity blog for more detail on comma problems, including the comma splice.]

So what can you do if you have a comma problem?

There are a few tips and tricks that you can use. First, get rid of commas that you don’t need!

Many sentences don’t need a major re-structure to enable you to lose the comma. Alternatively, don’t be afraid to change up the structure if it’ll make your sentence more readable and get rid of unnecessary commas.

Using other forms of punctuation…

They’re there for a reason so get to know them; you’ll feel a new sense of freedom in writing when you do! There are four main types of punctuation that can be used in place of a comma: semicolons, colons, en dashes and full stops.

Semicolons are generally used to link two related clauses in place of a comma to indicate a longer pause in thought than a comma, but shorter and more closely related than a full stop. For example, in this pair of sentences which is split by a comma (i.e. a ‘comma splice’)…

Whereas a colon is used to introduce lists, conclusions or explanations and for emphasis. For example…

Whether you use a semicolon or a colon can be tricky to identify. In general a semicolon would divide ideas that are separate but related; whereas a colon would usually come before supplementary information, as in the above examples. There’s a closer relationship between the material divided by a colon than there is with a semicolon. Ironically, given the name, a semicolon is a stronger form of idea separation than a colon, which implies a more direct relationship between the two elements.

An unsung hero

The en dash is undoubtedly one of the unsung heroes of punctuation. Along with a well-placed semicolon or colon, it’s a brilliant way of enhancing a sentence. What the en dash does that semicolons and colons don’t do – and which commas or brackets are often used for – is to enable parentheses, asides and appositives in the middle of a sentence. All of these aspects of writing can make a piece not only easier to read but more interesting.

A word of warning – en dashes are used differently in American English, generally in a much more limited way than in British English, to signify things like date ranges. In general American English uses an em dash (usually with no spacing) for the kind of purposes – parentheses, asides, appositives – that the en dash is used for in British English. So be sure to know which style you are adopting before you start using them.

And lastly you can always continue a concept across two sentences. The finality of a full stop can sometimes make writers feel like they have to put all their ideas in one sentence. If you can restructure one long sentence into two shorter sentences – without hindering the nuances of the meaning – you can’t go far wrong. In most cases shorter sentences can describe complicated ideas more succinctly and therefore make them easier to understand.

However,

Now for the final, titular problem: ‘however,’.

Using ‘However,’ to start a sentence can be engaging, particularly if you want some internal tension in the sentence. But it’s easy to overdo, and it can upset some traditionally minded sticklers who have been taught not to use it at the start of a sentence. It’s not grammatically wrong, but using an alternative word or varying its position in the sentence can improve readability and style.

The word ‘however‘ has several different meanings, including ‘nevertheless’ and ‘no matter how‘. One thing it doesn’t mean is ‘but’. The two words have different functions. ‘However’ is a conjunctive adverb. ‘But’ is a coordinating conjunction. They’re not interchangeable.

If you use a conjunctive adverb to serve the function of a coordinating conjunction you might create unintended consequences, including a comma splice.

In the first example, using ‘however’ turns the second clause into a full sentence, which can’t be divided from the prior sentence using only a comma.

‘But’, on the other hand, is functionally able to join two sentences so in the second example there is no comma splice.

So although it’s a bit technical, think carefully about function as well as style when using ‘however’.

  • Is it the right word functionally given your sentence (i.e. an adverb)? Or should you be using a conjunction like ‘but’ instead?
  • If it IS the right word functionally, ask whether it looks better at the start, middle or end of your sentence.
  • Finally self-check whether you’re using it too much, as a crutch word you could replace with something else: ‘nevertheless’, ‘even so’, ‘despite this’, or similar.
  • And check you’re not inadvertently creating a ‘comma splice’ between two full sentences. It’s really easy to do and something that I still have to take care with as a copyeditor!
Image credit: Canva

So, to summarise…

It can be tempting to use words that are super long and fancy, or write long convoluted sentences with lots of fussy punctuation to sound more formal and give yourself more authority as an author. But good writing isn’t about you and your knowledge. It’s about your readers and telling them a story, in the clearest way possible. If you want your reader to understand your point of view, they have to understand what you’re saying. Whether it’s by using shorter sentences, appropriate vocabulary or simplified sentence structure. These conventions are tools to help you get your point across and help your readers fully appreciate your perspective.

Just remember…

  • A thesaurus and dictionary are your best friends when your struggling to find the right words to express yourself.
  • The search tool in Microsoft Word is a brilliant tool, which can save you time when editing and proofreading your work.
  • Don’t be afraid of using the full range of punctuation marks in your work!
  • Making your sentences simple doesn’t necessarily make your work informal or your argument less convincing. In fact it often makes your work more readable and articulate!

And how do you solve a problem like ‘However,’? Well, in short… it’s difficult because it’s not really about grammatical rules (or pseudo-rules) and more about style and opinion. If you need more information Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English has a great section on ‘However’ and many other controversial usages and pseudo-rules. Most important, just be consistent.

And if you’re still struggling, sometimes you might just need a pro to have a look that’s where copyeditors and proofreaders can help!