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My AP English Literature and Composition Teacher was reading aloud a piece on comedy and satire:

Characters in the novels are not always morally and socially obliging to each other, however, but there is differentiation between the upstanding hero or heroine and the socially less acceptable characters.

She then proceeded to correct the punctuation preceding the however, stating it should be a semicolon rather than a comma; my gripe is whether or not this correction is proper. If I'm not mistaken, she believes the however is intended to be used as a conjunctive adverb; however, the however is immediately followed by a but indicating the following phrase to be a dependent clause regardless of the however. The however seems like it's added in contrary to the preceding statement, but really, that's where I start to doubt myself.

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    By my reading, the however is to set up a contradiction to the proceeding sentence, whatever it may be. I cannot see it applying to the second half of THIS sentence. So to place a semicolon BEFORE the however seems quite strange. If the however was referring to the second half of the sentence, then there would be no need of "however" AND "but." It would be completely redundant. Could you possibly provide some of the previous text to confirm this? – KumaAra Sep 26 '17 at 2:17
  • You are right. The adverb however applies to the main clause preceding it ("Characters ... are not ... obliging ...") and contrasts this clause with whatever was said about the characters previously. Arguably there shouldn't be a comma before the but. There definitely shouldn't be a semicolon after the but. There can be either a semicolon or the conjunction but not both. – smatterer Sep 26 '17 at 5:08
  • I would put a period after however assuming that the sentence preceding this one carries the thought being contradicted. I would then put a comma after the but, giving it the meaning of however, and adding a further contradiction to the contradiction. – Thomas Jay Rush Sep 26 '17 at 23:55
  • By my reading, however and but are redundant. Either could be taken out with no change in the sentence's meaning. The punctuation would be to have a semicolon before whichever word is chosen to remain, and a comma is used after the word: Characters in the novels are not always morally and socially obliging to each other; however/but, there is differentiation between the upstanding hero or heroine and the socially less acceptable characters. – Yoshi Bro Oct 2 '17 at 22:27
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I understand your dilemma: if the semicolon went before the 'however', one would use both 'however' and 'but' to mean the same thing.

The issue, in my humble view, is that the original sentence has a precarious logical construction, in how it connects the flow of ideas: putting a "however" just before a "but" obfuscates the meaning, because it piles two levels of opposition in the same place (perhaps the writer was in a hurry).

  • 'However' creates an opposition between the first clause ('Characters... to each other') and something written before the paragraph (which we don't see here).

  • 'but' creates an opposition between the second clause ('there is a differentiation... characters') and the first one.

If one really wanted to improve this sentence, why not going further and fix the order of ideas? At this point, editing would be required. There might be various ways, but one could try this:

However, characters in the novels are not always morally and socially obliging to each other, but there is differentiation between the upstanding hero or heroine and the socially less acceptable characters.

Here we would break the (non-absolute) rule that 'however' should never be at the beginning of a sentence. Hypothesis: did the problem originate from a rote application of that rule?

So, if the word 'however' was the problem, let's try to flesh out the meaning:

It is true that characters in the novels are not always morally and socially obliging to each other; yet there is differentiation between the upstanding hero or heroine and the socially less acceptable characters.

(Here I followed the suggestion of putting a semicolon and changed the 'but' into a 'yet', to make it crispier.)

But to check whether that was the best flow of ideas, one would need to see the previous paragraph. Furthermore, we are in the realm of composition, which is open of opinion. What I wished to illustrate here was a method of resolution, rather than a pat answer.

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You are right.
When 'however' is used correctly, in most cases, you could simply remove it from the sentence and it would still be correct:

Characters in the novels are not always morally and socially obliging to each other, but there is differentiation between the upstanding hero or heroine and the socially less acceptable characters.

He asked me for money to buy a sandwich. I did not have enough money for a sandwich, however, but I gave him what money I had.

Perfectly fine. Her correction is wrong.

  • Welcome to EL&U. Your statements are correct, however, the OP's question is about punctuation. – Rupert Morrish Apr 2 '18 at 20:17
  • Edited to answer the question. – Chuckk Hubbard Apr 2 '18 at 22:08

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