Writers tend to overuse however because they think it sounds more professional than but. The truth, though, is that however is a clunky word that you should use carefully. Here are some tips.
1. Your go-to word should be but, which usually works much better. Professional writers usually try but first. If you really, REALLY want to use however after you’ve tried but, go ahead.
2. You probably had a teacher who mistakenly thought you can’t start sentences with but. That’s nonsense. There’s no such rule, and professional writers start sentences with but all the time. Get over it (and check your bookshelf – you’ll see that I’m right!).
3. The most popular way to use however is as the first word of the sentence. Most times it will require a comma:
I didn’t want to walk home in the rain. However, I didn’t have enough money for a taxi. CORRECT
You’ll be able to tell that you need a comma because however will feel like an extra word. (Reading your sentence aloud can help: You’ll hear yourself pause after however.) The real sentence is “I didn’t have enough money for a taxi.”
4. The biggest mistake writers make is trying to join sentences with however and a comma. Don’t do it!
John called to wish me a happy birthday, however I haven’t heard from Sally. INCORRECT
You need a period and a capital letter:
John called to wish me a happy birthday. However, I haven’t heard from Sally. CORRECT
Or you can do what a professional writer would probably do and just use but:
John called to wish me a happy birthday, but I haven’t heard from Sally. CORRECT
There are only seven words that you can use with a comma to join two sentences: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. (Teachers call them the FANBOYS. See Comma Rule 2 on this free handout.) You can make life really simple for yourself by shortening the list to only two: and, but.
If you really want to be fancy, you can create a long sentence by using however and a semicolon. (A semicolon is just like a period, but there’s no capital letter.)
John called to wish me a happy birthday; however, I haven’t heard from Sally. CORRECT
5. If you use however as an extra word in the middle of a sentence, you’ll need two commas. The first comma drops your voice, and the second one brings it back up again. (Reading the sentence aloud will help you hear those commas.)
It rained all weekend, however, and we came home early. CORRECT
6. You can also use however in the sense of “whatever.” This is a less common usage, and it’s an easy one: Don’t use a comma. (Again, reading your sentence aloud will help.)
I told Ken that however he organizes the party is fine with me. CORRECT
And that’s it! Come back to this page as often as you need to. Soon you’ll feel supremely confident with however. (And, as a bonus, I hope you’ll be using but more often.)
Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers. Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go