Written by Mark L. Levinson
A fable: In its youth, the word However was just another member of the Ever family, like Wherever and Whoever and Whichever. They all had simple meanings. Certainly the word Whatever had not yet dreamed that it would someday acquire the meaning “I don’t want to talk about it.”
However meant “regardless of what way,” as in “However you adjust that bowtie, it will still be crooked.” Looking around, though, it saw there was competition going on for the position of an upscale But, particularly at the beginning of a sentence. Word partnerships like Be That As It May, For All That, and the conglomerated Nonetheless were all active in that territory, but no one had a monopoly. “I already mean regardless of the way a specific thing comes to pass,” thought However, “so by extension I can easily mean regardless of all things and expectations in general.”
It took up its place at the start of the next suitable sentence. “The tie is straight. However its tightness irritates the wearer.”
“Was that a sentence?” said the readers. “Isn’t the end of it missing?”
“It’s a perfectly good sentence,” said However, sounding less authoritative than it had hoped.
“But shouldn’t the sentence go on to say ‘However its tightness irritates the wearer, the wearer must endure it’? Or ‘However its tightness irritates the wearer, its attractiveness is full compensation’? Or something?”
“No,” said However. “This time I’m not just introducing a circumstance alongside the main point of sentence. I’ve moved up. I’m introducing the main point and I mean ‘but,’ only I have more syllables.”
“How are we supposed to know that this time you mean that?” said the readers.
However realized that it needed help. Inspiration hit. “A comma,” it said. “At the beginning of the sentence, I shall be accompanied by a comma when my meaning is ‘regardless of everything.’” And it demonstrated: “However, its tightness irritates the wearer.”
“You know,” said the readers, “generally a one-word modifier at the start of a sentence doesn’t need a comma. ‘Often its tightness irritates the wearer.’ ‘Unfortunately its tightness irritates the wearer.’ We kind of like to save the commas for the middle of the sentence, where the action is.”
The prospect of being an exception made However like the idea even better. “Other one-word modifiers may go optionally punctuated if they wish,” it said, “but in my case the comma must be carefully used, or carefully omitted, in order to suit my chosen meaning.”
“All right,” said the readers. “We guess we can live with that.”
However had come out on top. But it was haunted by that remark about “the middle of the sentence, where the action is.” Now it wanted to be in the middle of the sentence too. At the next opportunity, it jumped in: “The ends of the necktie should be almost even, however the narrow end should be shorter.”
“What kind of a run-on sentence is that?” said the readers. “And if your meaning is ‘nonetheless,’ where’s your comma?”
“In front?” said However.
“We don’t buy it,” said the readers.
However tried two commas: “The ends of the necktie should be almost even, however, the narrow end should be shorter.” No, something was wrong. However felt caught in a buffoonish superfluity, as if wearing both a tie clasp and a stickpin.
“We don’t buy it,” said the readers. “You can’t take a both comma in front like a conjunction and a comma in back like an adverb.”
Last time, it had been saved by a comma. Perhaps in this more serious case it could be saved by a semicolon? “How’s this?” said However: “The ends of the necktie should be almost even; however, the narrow end should be shorter.”
“What’s that instead of the first comma?” said the readers.
“A semicolon,” said However.
“Semicolon. Makes sense,” said the readers. “Pity it doesn’t show up better on the computer screen. Separate sentences would have come out clearer.”
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