By Dr Oliver Tearle
There are lots of strange ideas surrounding the word ‘however’. Some teachers tell their students they shouldn’t begin a new sentence with the word ‘but’, and should substitute the word ‘however’ instead. However (as it were), this misses the fact that ‘but’ and ‘however’ are different classes of words, with ‘but’ being a conjunction and ‘however’ being an adverb.
Curiously, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) names Shakespeare as the first citation of ‘however’ as a synonym for ‘but’ or ‘notwithstanding’: Shakespeare’s late history play Henry VIII, co-authored with John Fletcher, contains the lines: ‘All the Land knowes that: / How euer, yet there is no great breach.’ As the tautological ‘How euer, yet’ shows, ‘However’ is being used to mean ‘yet’ or ‘nevertheless’ here.
In any case, there’s nothing wrong with using ‘but’ at the start of a sentence – and much can go wrong if you misuse ‘however’, treating it as a simple synonym for ‘but’. Let’s take a closer look at some of the alternatives to the word ‘however’ and how they can be used in speech and writing.
Synonyms for the word ‘however’
Let’s start with BUT. This short, simple word is a conjunction, because it is used to join clauses together, much like ‘and’. Consider these two statements, involving going to look for the cat:
A: I looked in the garden and the cat was there.
B: I looked in the garden but the cat wasn’t there.
In both cases, the (italicised) conjunction) joins the two clauses together, but in B, of course, the cat isn’t there so the conjunction but is used. But we could also have used however here:
I looked in the garden; however, the cat wasn’t there.
However is an adverb rather than a conjunction, hence the comma that follows it. Adverbs are often words ending in -ly, such as happily or sadly or quickly, and one can imagine a slightly different sentence that might read:
I looked in the garden; happily, the cat was there.
So but is a simpler and more direct way of saying virtually the same thing as however in such examples.
Another short word, YET, serves a similar function, and can therefore serve as a synonym for however, as in ‘I looked in the garden, yet the cat wasn’t there’.
The word STILL works slightly differently from but and yet and is, in some ways, closer to however than either of those. Indeed, in syntax it is often literally closer to however, since the two are used together, as in this example from the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1825: ‘Still, however, there was another extreme which, though far less dangerous, was also to be avoided.’
In such an example, ‘still’ means something similar to NONETHELESS (or NEVERTHELESS: they are both synonyms for each other): that is, DESPITE THAT, THAT BEING SAID, ALL THE SAME, or JUST THE SAME. For instance, ‘I know it’s useless buying a lottery ticket; still, someone’s got to win, haven’t they?’ A synonym for still in this sense (and for nonetheless/nevertheless) is NOTWITHSTANDING.
AFTER ALL also performs this function, as in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590): ‘Yet after all, he victour did suruiue’ means essentially, ‘however, he survived as victor’.
Indeed, a suite of words which also convey this idea of just the same or notwithstanding are REGARDLESS, ANYHOW, ANYWAY, and EVEN SO. Remember to steer clear of ‘irregardless’, a word frowned upon because it makes no sense (the ir- prefix presumably negates the word regardless, so its meaning would be the opposite of ‘regardless’).
THOUGH and ALTHOUGH are two more words which can be used more or less interchangeably with however. For instance, ‘He’s a good singer; however, he’s no Frank Sinatra’ could be rewritten quite easily to read, ‘He’s a good singer, (al)though he’s no Frank Sinatra’. Using though (or although) arguably softens the blow of the criticism of the person’s singing in the second half of the sentence, in a way that however does not: however acts as performative throat-clearing before delivering the stinging indictment of the singer’s abilities, whereas though and although keep the emphasis slightly focused towards the start of the sentence, and the good news (‘He’s a good singer …’).
A slightly more archaic synonym for however is HOWBEIT. Whereas albeit has lasted, howbeit, which means roughly BE THAT AS IT MAY, has become largely obsolete and so is best avoided as an archaism or old-fashioned word. Of course, if you’re writing historical fiction, it may be just the term you’re looking for!
Antonyms for the word ‘however’
If however sees the clause which follows it swerving away from the clause which precedes it (as in the example ‘I looked in the garden; however, the cat wasn’t there’), then good antonyms for however see the two clauses agreeing with each other: the latter one follows naturally and smoothly from the former.
With this in mind, we might identify THEREFORE, THUS, and SO as antonyms for however.