however, adv. : Oxford English Dictionary

Etymology: < how adv. + ever adv. 6.

In senses 2, 3, however is the relic of an original subordinate clause (like those of sense 1), such as ‘however this may be’.

however | Definition of however in English by Lexico Dictionaries

  1. Used to introduce a statement that contrasts with or seems to contradict something that has been said previously.

How did the adverbs 'how' and 'ever' (in 'however this may be') compound to yield meaning 1 above?

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  • Cp all-though, any-ways; the semantics rests on the completenes of the referent. It's pretty close to whatever, I don't care. how and what may serve as determiners, the reference to the referent, from which question wh-words developed. Also cp Ger aber "but", PGem *afer, low German aver vs ever; Ger was auch immer "what ever", wie auch immer "how so ever", wieso auch immer "why ever", auch "eke (archaic), as well, also" ... comparison to "after", PIE *h2ep- is semantically lacking, however cp of, off, PGem *ab, of same root, and wie dem auch sei (genitive)
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 10:19
  • Cp especially Ger abertausende "thousands of, an endless amount" vs *ever more".
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 10:21
  • Wie dem auch sei is dative, not genitive.
    – KarlG
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 10:48
  • @KarlG indeed, I noticed to late to edit. Thanks for inviting correcting. It makes little difference, because I'm not sure of historic variants; Hence I said "compare". Should I add "please"? I guess wie dessen auch sei might fly, and wie des' auch sei would be as inconspicious as wie das auch sei. Dativ and Akkusativ fell together in English, German took Genitive or Dativ over Akkusativ ("wegen de-"?). It's not really pertain to "of", maybe. That was just a quick idea. Cp get off of, komm vom, von dem.
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 19:46
  • 1
    I don't understand the downvotes or what is not clear about the question.
    – S Conroy
    Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 20:16

1 Answer 1


Middle English and Now

In Middle English, as the examples in the online Middle English Compendium attest, however is concessive, not contrastive:

For sikerly my dette shal be quyt
Towardes yow, howevere that I fare
To goon a-begged in my kirtle bare.

For surely my debt shall be repaid
To you, even if I have
To go abegging in my bare tunic. — “Franklin’s Prologue and Tale,” Canterbury Tales 1578–80.

Concessive however still occurs in Present Day English:

About ¥9 trillion of the deficit is officially masked as “construction money” for bridges, roads and government buildings, but however it’s termed, it is money the government will have to borrow to spend. — Japan Weekly Digest 6/30–48 (1995), 16.

However much Members of the Commons may have been bullied by the Prime Minister, they failed to agree on any one of the options laid before them. — The Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), vol. 655, 2002.

Along with other interrogative + ever compounds that have entered the language since Late Old Englishwhoever you are, whatever you do, wherever you go, whenever you can — concessive however arises directly from its lexical meaning as how, ‘in what way/manner, to what degree’, plus a generalizing ever: however you want.

Contrastive however is defined by its function, i.e., by what it does, not what it means, a linguistic process known as grammaticalization. Thus the OED definition you quoted: “used to introduce a statement that contrasts with or seems to contradict something that has been said previously” followed by a few synonyms with the same function.

The semantic difference between concessive however and its more modern contrastive twin is one of emphasis. In a concessive, the subordinate clause is backgrounded: an exception, qualification, or concession to the argument of the independent clause is acknowledged, but does not diminish the truth of that argument. A contrastive juxtaposes two arguments: however much/even if x, [yet] y versus x; however, y. Since the difference is more quantitative than qualitative, a concessive can be considered a subcategory of the contrastive. Thus a shift to constrastive however is not as great a move as one might think.

Early Examples

This nuance also makes it difficult to parse earlier texts when, absent other cues, a modern reading of contrastive however seems just as tenable:

As for Livia, after Augustus his death she was commonly called Iulia Augusta: how ever some writers retaine her olde name Livia, and others againe in Augustus his life name her Iulta. — Philemon Holland, trans., The Historie of Twelve Caesars (Suetonius), 1606. EEBO

Does this editorial note contrast the general (the name Julia Augusta) with some/other writers using different names, or does Holland mean that although/while some/others use different names, the name Julia Augusta was commonly used? The lack of a comma after how ever, though not always reliable, would suggest a concessive reading, as does the earlier date.

As in Chaucer, other early examples are concessive:

how ever hee made fome shew of grace in his youth, when he came to the top or heighth of his beft proofe, he would bee found a barrain ftalk without frute. — Thomas Nash, Have with You to Saffron-Walden, London, 1596.

At the first, how ever they were wont to be at ods, and to fall out at the mustering of souldiours, yet in warre they would hold together, and obey their captaines. — Philemon Holland, trans., The Romane Historie (Livy), 1600. EEBO

And I will first bring in one, of our own nation, of great account (and that worthily) with al that fear God, how ever he were against vs in our practise. — John Robinson, A Iustification of Separation from the Church of England, 1610. EEBO

Cues to moderns to read however concessively is the correlation with yet and the present or past subjunctive.


The crucial step toward constrastive however shifts it from a subordinating conjunction to a sentence or conjunctive adverb. Shakespeare provides two examples, from an early play and his last extant one:

If haply won, perhaps a hapless gain;
If lost, why then a grievous labour won;
However, but a folly bought with wit,
Or else a wit by folly vanquished. — Two Gentlemen of Verona 1.1, 34–37, (ca. 1589–93).

Second Gentleman. He of Winchester
Is held no great good lover of the archbishop’s,
The virtuous Cranmer.

Third Gentleman. All the land knows that:
However, yet there is no great breach; when it comes,
Cranmer will find a friend will not shrink from him. — Henry VIII 4.1, 2539–41 (1613).

While in the earlier excerpt however seems to mean something like even so, the later one seems more ambiguous. One can read these verses as: Everyone knows that Winchester is no friend of Canterbury. Although no great breach has yet occurred, when it does, Cranmer will find an ally. If you prefer a contrastive reading, then this would be the only instance in the entire Shakespearean corpus. (Since the website opensourceshakespeare.com does not allow permanent links to search results, you can check for yourself by querying however as well as howe to pick up howe’re.)

Early Sixteenth Century

As the century progresses, readings of contrastive however become more likely:

…we should say, life unto things living is therefore sweet, because it is a principall stemme of being, as sweetnesse likewise is of goodnesse: however, we may resolve this Physicall Axiome, into a metaphysicall: omne ens qua ens est bonum; Vnto every thing, its owne proper being is good: — Thomas Jackson, A Treatise of the Divine Essence and Attributes, 1629. EEBO

I ever yet found him obedient, nor doe I doubt to win him now: how ever, I am resolv’d if he in this shall crosse me, I’le disinherit him immediatly. — Peter Hausted, The Rival Friends (comedy), 1632.

This Cardan [Gerolamo Cardano] sayes, and hee doth but say it, without bringing any proofe for its confirmation: however, I will set downe the arguments that are usually urged for this opinion, and they are taken either from scripture, or reason … — John Wilkins, A Discourse Concerning a New World, 1640. EEBO

'Tis not likely that Jehoſaphat would deſire the Prophets of Baal to be conſulted; or, that he would hearken to them more then to the Prophet of the Lord Micajah, yet in this he failed extremly, that he had too far engaged himſelf to Ahab, before the enquiring at the Word of the Lord. How ever, it ſeemes, he was by this enquiring, ſeeking a fair way to come off again. — George Gillespie, An Usefull Case of Conscience Discussed and Resolved, Edinburgh, 1649.

All the paths of the Lord are mercy & truth, unto such as keep his covenant, and his testimonies: however, even the faithfull may think, some of God’s wayes he takes towards them, by the strangeness of them, to be unagreeable to that mercy and truth is in him and his promises.— George Abbot, Brief Notes on the Whole Book of Psalms, 1651. EEBO

The concessive use still occurs:

How ever therefore we can not hope in this life … to attaine unto the steddy continuance of the actuall view of him that is invisible, yet, to the habituall, and virtuall power of apprehending him, wee may … happily aspire. — Joseph Hall, The Remedy of Profaneness, 1637.

Such wilde language was wont to be a stranger to your custome; how ever, brother, you are pleas'd to vent it, I hope for recreation. — John Ford, The Fancies (drama), 1638.

However, even the faithfull may think, some of Gods wayes he takes towards them, by the strangeness of them, to be unagreeable to that mercy and truth is in him and his promises. Yet be they never so contrary to flesh and bloud, they are all of them consonant to his grace and faithfulness, … — George Abbot, Brief Notes upon the Whole Book of Psalms, 1651.

The Divel tempted David to sin; yet he calls it his sin; not Satan’s, but his own; … however Epictetus could say, when evil happens to a man, one of the vulgar would blame others, a young philosopher would blame himself; but one that had dived into the depth of nature, would blame neither the one, nor the other, yet a Christian hath learned to blame himselfe, as knowing that all his sorrowes proceed from his sins. — Thomas Adams, God’s Anger and Man’s Comfort, 1652. EEBO

In the second example, the commas belong to the noun of direct address brother: however you are pleased to vent it, brother; I hope for recreation. In the other three, the correlated however/yet suggest a meaning of even if or although.

In my view, these two passages from an anonymously translated Dutch history are patient of either interpretation:

… Prince William of Orange [William II, father of the future king], of immortal memorie, was suddenly and unexspectedly taken away from this world, without leaving any issue of his bodie visible, however afterwards through God’s blessing a young prince was happily born. — Little Chronicle, trans. unknown, Lieuwe van Aitzema, Herstelde Leeuw, of Discours, over 't gepasseerde inde Vereenichde Nederlanden, in 't jaer 1650 ende 1651 (1652),1653. EEBO

…hee [Prince of Orange] shewed himself ill-satisfied, saying, hee had caus now to scruple, whether, in regard of this neglect, hee might go on with his commission or not; however hee would not do it of his own head, but advise first with the rest of the officers about it… — ibid.


By the 1660s, however, grammaticalization seems to be complete:

The Souldiers afterwards went to Aldersgat, Newgate, and some other places; but the work did not prove so feasible, for they [city gates] being both of an extraordinary and impregnable strength, proved the more difficult; so that a longer time was required: however, they dismounted the gates from off the hinges, and with iron wedges and great hammers, rent and tore a pieces part of the percullisses. — George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, The declaration and speech of His Excellency the Lord Generall Monck to the right honourable the Lord Mayor, 1660. EEBO

A Christian hearing thee, will charitably suppose that thou art praying; however, he will never suppose that thou art swearing. — William Annand, Panem Quotidianum, 1661.

Be couragious, and fear nothing, but to offend; in doing thy duty, despise thy danger; … he that bids thee, can bear thee out; perchance beasts shall not bite, nor the fire burn, however, better thou lose thy life, than he his glory. — Anon., Advice of a Father, 1664. EEBO

In the interim, the whole Portugal fleet, … weighing their anchors, came out to sea: the Hollanders sometimes waited for them one to one, otherwhiles two to one; however at last, one of the spanish vessels was burned … Hugo Grotius, De rebus belgicis, 1665. EEBO

Here I ought to have shewed the making, and use of an instrument for taking the leaning of such vessels [brewing vats]; but my business calls me off; however, they may be had of Mr Iohn Marks instrument maker, living at the sign of the ball near Somerset House in the Strand, … — Robert Anderson, Stereometrical Propositions Variously Applicable, 1668. EEBO

And whereas thou art offended, (thou sayst) that I should say, thou are like the pharisees; whether I spake so or no, however, I own that thou art like them (at least) even one among them. — Edward Burroughs, The Memorable Works of a Son of Thunder, 1672. EEBO

…Thomas Randal who was continued Governour, kept the country in entire peace and prosperity, which King Edward hearing of, hired a monk to kill Randal by poyson, … how ever the Poyson did not take effect at first, but the monk returned home and told king edward that he had done his business, … William Alexander, Medulla historæ scoticæ, 1685.

Theo says, that Algebra was invented by Plato; however the chief Writers of Algebra are those whose names I have set down here, to gratifie such as would learn this noble Art. — David Abercromby, Academia scientiarum, 1687.

However Clauses

The notion that contrastive however might have arisen from a reduced clause is problematic: such clauses are invariably concessive, meaning be that as it may or whatever the case:

Others say, that upon agreement and covenant made to deliver that which was on their left hands, she [Tarpeia] demanded their armour, and because she seemed to deale, deceitfully, shee was overtaken therwith, and perished by receiving a reward of her owne chusing: however it was, the Sabines were possessed of the castle. — Holland 1600. EEBO

But for the transporting of the elephants, I suppose there were sundrie devises: and certainly, however it was, the thing is diversly recorded. — Holland 1600. EEBO

…if I my selfe were a professed Physitian, i should not be of Paracelsus his minde, who saith, that this podagra is a gravell gathered between the joints, whereby the gout is called and however it be, it is a disease subject to such as are of sedentary and studious lives. — Philemon Holland, Gutta podrica: A Treatise of the Gout, 1633. EEBO

But if, whom God hath made a fit help, frowardnes or private injuries have made unfit, that beeing the secret of mariage God can better judge then man, neither is man indeed fit or able to decide this matter; however it be, undoubtedly a peacefull divorce is a lesse evil and lesse in scandal then a hatefull hard hearted and destructive continuance of mariage … John Milton, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, 1643. EEBO

But however it be, when two forms are prescribed, we need not dispute which we should use, much less may we deny to use either: but as it is our duty to use one, so it will be our sin to omit both… — Thomas Long, An Exercitation Concerning the Frequent Use of our Lords Prayer, 1658.

And this may probably pass for a reason in nature, why, after their confluence, the waters of Arsanias float over those of Tigris, because they are not so well cleansed from the nitrous and oily matter they had contracted in the Thospian lake, as those of Tigris (by coursing under ground) were: however this be, it hindreth us nothing from the thing we aimed at, viz: a sight of that fountain we have been in search of… Marmaduke Carver, A Discourse of the Terrestrial Paradise, 1666. EEBO

However it be, I'me sure I've said enough to prove that truly good intentions cannot take in evil means, and that such means when they are taken in, make the intention mixt and unholy, and therefore far from pure. — Richard Allestree, Sermon XVIII: “The Light of the Body is the Eye,” Forty Sermons, 1684.

Some say, that Otho died at Rome and that his body was carried into Germany; others say't was buried in S: Peter's Church: however that may be,'t is certain, that Henry Duke of Bavaria, who was an excellent and a most holy person was now created emperor, … — Paul Rycault, trans., Lives of the Popes (Platina), 1685. EEBO

Also speaking against a however clause as the source of the contrastive is that an abbreviation of sorts had already occurred in the late 15th c., creating the concessive adverb/conjunction howbeit:

The realme of Persey is diuyded in: ii: perties howbeit it is all but one realme. — Richard Pynson, trans., Frère Hayton, La Fleur des Histoires de la Terre d’Orient (ca. 1307), 1520. EEBO

While howbeit still had some currency in the mid-19th c., it has disappeared today, unlike its equally concessive cousin albeit.


In Middle English, however is both lexical, as all other interrogative + -ever compounds, and concessive, a use still present today. Taking the role of a single word sentence or conjunctive adverb at the beginning of a clause facilitates a grammaticalization process toward a contrastive use which seems fairly complete by the 1660s. It is difficult to imagine that a somehow truncated however phrase played a part.

  • "a generalizing ever" is an unacceptable slight of hand. The etymology of albeit as "all + be + it" is ridiculous, even, surely reminiscent of the kind of folk etymology that prevailed at least up to Skeat.
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 19:33
  • @vectory: Your argument would be with the editor of etymonline. He is quite responsive to user input. If you have documented proof of whatever assertions you're making, I'm sure he's like to hear from you.
    – KarlG
    Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 23:05
  • the required documentation in either case would be a treatment using the comparative method. Since you however have not shown any of that I trust that there is nothing of note, although that was not exactly the scope of the question. However! Ger wobei! (not to be confused with whereby) is similarly used as a discourse marking interjection (a category that is exceedingly unlikely to be used in writing) (cp je ~ yet, ne ~ not, etc for the -t, perhaps) and wie auch immer is a parallel that cannot be dismissed, though it might be an analoguous development in later times.
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 9:01
  • By the way, reading wie immer or wie sonst auch "as always", gives the first quote a funny connotation. Since I likened aber and ever, eventually to compare after, I do not disagree with concessive reading, probably rather seen in Ger ob (various uses), perhaps überhaupt "over all, anyhow", also, just a hin-t, cp immer hin "anyway", vs be-hin-d. Still, I have no idea and just lament that this answer does not show one. The "generalizing ever" is reminiscent of Ger je, which is even more convoluted.
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 9:19
  • 1
    OED saith: albeit [prop. a phrase all be it (that); in full, all though it be that. This is only a particular instance of all with a verb in subjunctive (see all adv. 10), in which the conjunctive phrase becomes a quasi-word. The nom. pron. it was also often dropped, whence the shorter all be, albe. Before the synthesis was complete, all be it had, in past tense, all were it. ] Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 18:13

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