The Two Meanings of ‘However’

The word ‘however’ is quite common in academic writing. It also has two meanings, so it’s important to know how it should be used in different situations. In this blogpost, we’ll illustrate this with a little help from late-80s/early-90s dance-pop group Soul II Soul.

Jazzie B: rightfully proud. (Image: SHARE Conference/flickr)

Jazzie B, rightfully proud of his work.
(Image: SHARE Conference/flickr)

However (In Whatever Way)

The first meaning of ‘however’ is as an adverb meaning ‘in whatever way’. This is how it is used in Soul II Soul’s hit song ‘Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)’, with features the lyric:

However do you want me, however do you need me.

Since this isn’t an actual sentence, though, it might help to provide another example:

However you choose to define it, Soul II Soul were a successful band.

Here, ‘however’ is used to say that Soul II Soul were successful no matter how you define success.

A similar use of ‘however’ is to mean ‘to whatever extent’:

You have to admit that Soul II Soul had lost something by the mid-90s, however much you like their early work.

In this case, ‘however’ is used to mean ‘no matter how much’.

We don’t necessarily endorse that assessment, by the way. 1995’s Vol. V: Believe was a decent album. Especially ‘Love Enuff’.

However (A Fancy ‘But’)

The second main use of ‘however’ is to introduce a contrast. This makes it a useful synonym for ‘but’, although there are some differences in how the terms can be used.

For instance, while ‘but’ can link dependent clauses within a sentence, ‘however’ is only used with independent clauses (i.e. statements that would work as a sentence by themselves).

So while we might use ‘but’ to say:

I love Soul II Soul but haven’t heard Caron Wheeler’s solo work.

To say the same thing with ‘however’, we’d have to turn this into two sentences:

I love Soul II Soul. I haven’t, however, heard Caron Wheeler’s solo work.

Note that ‘however’ is set apart from the sentence with commas when used in this sense.

Caron Wheeler is outraged by our musical oversight. (Image: Alan Light/flickr)

Caron Wheeler is outraged by our not having heard her music.
(Image: Alan Light/flickr)

Starting a Sentence with ‘However’

People often ask whether it’s OK to start a sentence with ‘however’. This confusion arises from the idea that you shouldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction, which is wrong anyway.

But even if it wasn’t, you’d still be able to use ‘however’ at the start of a sentence.

As above, the only rule is that it must introduce a full sentence. This can be separated from the preceding sentence with either a full stop or a semicolon:

I love Soul II Soul. However, I don’t own their singles.Correct

I love Soul II Soul; however, I don’t own their singles.Correct

However, it would be wrong to use this sense of ‘however’ after a comma:

I love Soul II Soul, however I don’t own their singles. Incorrect

So can you start a sentence with ‘however’? In summary, yes.



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