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Several years ago, a previous boss told me to use a semicolon and comma with the word "however". I've always questioned this and would like to know if the following random sentences are using the correct method.

  1. Our plane was delayed overnight; however, the airlines reimbursed us for lodging.
  2. It looks as though he's upset; however, she told me he always has that look on his face.
  3. I want to find him a nice gift; however, I am a broke until payday.

Normally I would use a less "wordy" sentence in casual writing, but hopefully the example will suffice. For example, on number 3 I would usually type:

I want to get him a nice gift, but I'm broke until payday.

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However marks a change of thought more strongly than but, so it really wants the semicolon. Think of the semicolon as a hinge on which the second half of the sentence turns. –  StoneyB Feb 21 '13 at 22:38
    
theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon –  MετάEd Feb 21 '13 at 23:14
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@StoneyB However, that depends on the sense of however and following one rule in isolation can lead to trouble however well-advised it is in some cases. –  Jon Hanna Feb 22 '13 at 0:38
    
Thank you, I greatly appreciate your help. You are also spot on, I tend to be very "wordy" in everyday communication. –  Ross Johnston Feb 23 '13 at 7:35

3 Answers 3

There are three and a half different ways to use however*. This one needs a semicolon.

The first is using it as a conjunctive adverb. In this sense the meaning of however is that the independent clause that follows counters the independent clause before it (denying it, giving a caveat, stating something as true that we would not expect considering the first clause, etc.)

As a fully independent clause, it needs a semicolon to separate them. (As per the link MετάEd gave in the comment on the question, though note that a conjunctive adverb is not the same as a conjunction, so the "Don't use it with with conjunctions" doesn't apply).

And with conjunctive adverbs of more than one syllable, we use a comma after it to help clarify what is the second independent clause.

That's use of however number 1. Number 1½ is that since they're independent clauses we can just have them as separate sentences:

Our plane was delayed overnight. However, the airlines reimbursed us for lodging.

We would favour a new sentence or a semicolon depending on whether we wanted the semicolon's suggestion of a particularly strong tie between the two clauses.

(There are some who dislike starting a sentence with however so some style-guides prohibit it, but there's no grammatical reason not to, and it's as good an option to have available as any other. Most style-guides now allow it.)

We can use however as an aside, pointing out that the sentence (or possibly an independent or parenthetical clause, though as a matter of style that could get fiddly) opposes the previous:

It looks as though he's upset. She told me, however, that he always has that look on his face.

Here we use a comma both before and after.

Finally, we can use it to mean "to whatever extent or degree", "in whatever manner" or "by whatever means". This sense must not use a semicolon or a comma.

However we use punctuation, the goal is always clear expression.

This goal is shared by all writers however they decide to deal with those cases where different style-guides disagree.

If you don't use a semicolon in the cases in your question, you can end up using however in this sense, when you intend the conjunctive adverb sense:

Some sentences are ambiguous; however, we try hard to avoid this.

Some sentences are ambiguous however we try hard to avoid this.

The first sentence here states two separate thoughts, and points out that one is opposed to the other: "Some sentences are ambiguous" and "we try hard to avoid this".

The second sentence states that no matter how hard we try to avoid it, some sentences are ambiguous.

These two grammatically correct sentences differ only in whether we followed the semicolon-and-comma rule you mention, showing its value clearly.

*Four-and-a-half if we include the informal use as an emphatic form of how; "However did you manage that?". This comes from a sense where the original how + ever works, ("How ever did you manage that?") and many would say that this is the only correct form here, and however should not be used.

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“Mainly British”? Huh? –  tchrist Feb 22 '13 at 0:53
    
@tchrist A false perception on my part? I've always thought it a very British form. –  Jon Hanna Feb 22 '13 at 0:55
    
Perhaps because you associate elevated registers with RP? Not sure. “However will you manage that?” “Just how do you plan to do that?” “How the hell are you gonna do that?” I perceive a register shift in formality of presentation, but I wouldn’t associate that with any particular island however great or small. :) –  tchrist Feb 22 '13 at 0:59
    
@tchrist Amusingly, I find only wiktionary (useful as a starting point, but never a final answer on anything) agreeing with me, while Oxford suggests that the idea that it should be "how ever" is better understood and more widely followed in en-GB than en-US! Though, that could be because the use at all is indeed more British, I'm going to take that as saying I should cut that bit. Probably not a register matter with me (as a matter of where the posher people I know are from). Probably the general rule that you can't trust any idea of who says what unless you check it. –  Jon Hanna Feb 22 '13 at 1:04
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@JonHanna, thanks so much for the breakdown. You've been a big help!!! --Ross –  Ross Johnston Feb 23 '13 at 7:36

Yes, they're all correct. As far as I understand, a semicolon is used to indicate a slight pause in the sentence, but it's not completed yet, when a full stop would be used. No. 3 would also work with an ordinary comma.

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Semi-colon is used because it could be completed, but the writer has decided that's not desirable. –  Jon Hanna Feb 22 '13 at 0:40

In the final example box of Jon Hanna's 2/22/13 post, he writes as a correct sentence "Some sentences are ambiguous however we try hard to avoid this." Would it not be better to reorganize as" "Some sentences are ambiguous however hard we try to avoid this."?

My (American) thought is that we would similarly say "no matter how hard we try" or "regardless of how hard we try." Hanna appears to intend for however to modify hard, not for however to contrast "we try hard" with "sentences are ambiguous." Thus, the however and hard should be together, perhaps as "Some are ambiguous however hard we try," or "However hard we try, some are ambiguous." Otherwise, a semicolon should be placed after ambiguous: "Some are ambiguous; however, we try hard."

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However much one might agree with your observation, it would be preferable to ask questions on existing answers as new questions or, at most, comment on the existing answer so that the original answerer can see your comment. –  msam Apr 28 at 16:12

protected by tchrist Aug 13 at 19:50

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