He was, however, unsure of his own judgement...
May 6, 2013 6:02 AM   Subscribe

Is placing certain adverbs like "however" and "nonetheless" after the first clause in a sentence an actual stylistic best practice, or just a personal preference I made up?

In editing other people's writing for publication, I frequently change sentences like (a) to ones like (b):

(a) However, many people living in the neighborhood do not own cars.

(b) Many people living in the neighborhood, however, do not own cars.

(a) Nonetheless, a number of residents take advantage of local bus lines to get to the grocery store.

(b) A number of residents, nonetheless, take advantage of local bus lines to get to the grocery store.

There may be other words that fit this profile, but only "however" and "nonetheless" are coming to mind for me at the moment.

To my prose ear, the (b) sentences sound elegant and proficient, whereas the (a) sentences sound a bit uneducated or stilted, even ESL-ish (no judgement here...I'm not a prescriptivist, but when I edit for work my job is to make people sound educated!). However*, (a) constructions seem to be so common that I wonder if this is seem weird personal aesthetic that I concocted on my own. What say y'all?

*I unconsciously started this sentence this way and had a good humbling laugh at myself, so I'll leave it as is to eat my slice of humble pie. :) But I would totally edit this back the other way, were I presented it!
posted by threeants to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
(I'm realizing, immediately after posting, that placing the adverb after the first noun phrase maybe seems to give it a certain specific modifying power over that preceding phrase, whereas placing it in the initial position gives it a more diffuse influence over the entire sentence, and thus feels less precise?)
posted by threeants at 6:05 AM on May 6, 2013

I see it as being about emphasis. If you want to accentuate the fact that the statement is a contradiction of the previous statement, start with the "however". Otherwise*, the second structure you presented seems to flow more naturally.

*Huh. I did it, too.
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 6:06 AM on May 6, 2013

To my eye, your sentences labeled (a) above are easier to read and understand than your sentences labeled (b). In the first example, "however" is a barrier separating the elements of your sentence (subject/verb) that convey its meaning. Same for "nonetheless" in the second sentence. Also, when those adverbs are at the front of the sentence, they are closer to the point made in the previous sentence that they seem to contrast with. In fact, when I start reading either of those sentences, I'm reading with a different inflection until I hit the "however" or the "nonetheless," and then I want to go back and start over. If I were editing for clarity -- say, for a news story or instruction manual -- I would strongly consider moving those adverbs to the front of the sentence.

In a more literary context, like fiction or a prose essay, I might be more inclined (as an editor) to leave the (b) sentence alone, assuming it scanned well -- that is, if the rhythms of the sentence were more interesting with "however" in the middle, I might leave it be. And for a spoken presentation, it's probably more OK since the speaker will have cues in her inflection when she begins the "however" sentence that help listeners anticipate the sentence's ultimate meaning.

As a writer, I'm probably guilty of using your (b) construction too much, thinking it sounds erudite. As an editor, I think it seems a mite precious under most circumstances.
posted by Mothlight at 6:16 AM on May 6, 2013 [7 favorites]

The way you are correcting things is grammatically correct, however, it's one of those rules that no one seems to care about except grammar nerds.
posted by JoanArkham at 6:18 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is one of those cases where, at best you are needlessly changing a perfectly acceptable construction to a different one (imposing your preference, rather than correcting a problem), and at worst you are actually affecting the flow of an argument and making it harder to follow. I'm a professional editor, and I suggest you find a better battle.
posted by acm at 6:26 AM on May 6, 2013 [11 favorites]

I realize to my embarrassment that I did not address your actual question, which had to do with "stylistic best practices," not my own ideas about the issue. This Grammar Girl post seems to have a pretty good overview of what different contemporary style guides have to say about it, as well as a good assortment of examples.
posted by Mothlight at 6:28 AM on May 6, 2013

I had thought I had learned to do so from an instruction in Strunk & White's Elements of Style, but I'm not seeing it laid out explicitly there. They do, however, write:

18. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

The proper place for the word, or group of words, which the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end of the sentence.

...The other prominent position in the sentence is the beginning. Any element in the sentence, other than the subject, becomes emphatic when placed first.

which would certainly argue for moving adverbs out of the beginning of the sentence, because you usually don't want them to be the most prominent words in the sentence.

So I would say that it is an aesthetic/stylistic choice rather than a grammatical one, but you're certainly not alone in your preference.
posted by jaguar at 6:38 AM on May 6, 2013

I lump it in with starting sentences with "But...", so I try not to do it. Sometimes the "correct" version sounds too ridiculous, though.
posted by supercres at 6:54 AM on May 6, 2013

I was taught (over 20 years ago) that it is best-practice not to begin a sentence with "However," but to insert it as a clause the way you are doing. I'm certain that that dictum came from Lucille Vaughn Payne's book "The Lively Art of Writing." I know some folks scorn that book (particularly her dictum on the word "there," to which I also adhere to this day) but I can't seem to break myself of it. I think it may well be one of those things that only grammar nerds (I proudly admit to being one) care about.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:00 AM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's in Strunk and White's current (fourth) edition. I'm willing to admit S&W has been criticized for being old-fashioned and inflexible though.
posted by JoanArkham at 7:18 AM on May 6, 2013

I lump it in with starting sentences with "But...", so I try not to do it.

This is perfectly cromulent, and often better than any alternative construction. If I were trying to emphasize the contrast with a previous sentence, I would place "however" and "nonetheless" first in a sentence, as in the (a) examples.

The only time this type of usage would be controversial is when using "hopefully" as a sentence adverb. It can be useful to know that that type of usage can be seen as incorrect some people, so you wouldn't want to use it where you're being judged, like in your PhD dissertation. But those people are wrong, so don't sweat it anywhere else.
posted by stopgap at 8:05 AM on May 6, 2013

I edit scientific articles written by non-native English speakers for publication. Our best practice for the situation you are addressing is two independent clauses separated by a semicolon, with the second one beginning with the adverb. Your examples don't include that first independent clause, the one which is contrasted with the one you have presented. If there is not a first independent clause (for instance, your 'however' is contrasting with an entire paragraph), I would still begin the sentence with the adverb. I think in the scientific writing context your b) construction is rather clunky and adds awkward commas. Clarity is our goal. In fiction or on Metafilter, of course, anything goes.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:33 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know I learned twenty-five years ago in a class based off Elements of Style that it was bad form to start sentences with single-adverb phrases like however. If the phrase was more than just a word, though, I think it was fine. ("However you slice it, you look like a jerk" is fine, but "However, you really look like a jerk for slicing it that way." is no good.)
posted by onlyconnect at 8:37 AM on May 6, 2013

I just double-checked our style guide. In your formulation b), we would not put commas around the adverb, following a general rule that a single adverb does not need commas to set it off the way an appositive or even just a longer phrase introduced by an adverb would. So that's another way to phrase it, which to me is less clunky than your b) with the commas.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:45 AM on May 6, 2013

Forgot to finish the thought.

Another the possible formulation would be:

Many people living in the neighborhood do not own cars, however.


A number of residents take advantage of local bus lines to get to the grocery store, nonetheless.

Also less clunky.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:48 AM on May 6, 2013

It depends on how the rest of the paragraph is constructed, doesn't it?

It also depends on the formality of the writing and the audience for which it is targeted.
posted by gjc at 5:22 PM on May 6, 2013

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