The punctuation mistake you never knew you were making

Here’s a grammar rule that’ll come as a big surprise to many of you: 95% of the time you shouldn’t put a comma before the word however.

Yep, you’ve been punctuating it wrong all these years. We know because we see this mistake all the time. In fact, it’s probably the most common error we see.

Here’s an example of how not to punctuate when using however:

There’s usually no need to book, however please let us know in advance if you’re coming as part of a large group.

This sentence has what’s known in the grammar trade as a comma splice. And the comma splice is up there with the grocer’s (grocers’?) apostrophe as the grammar crime most likely to elicit tuts of derision from the punctuation-conscious reader.

To avoid being branded a comma splice criminal, you have three options.

1. Create two sentences
Your best option for punctuating the above sentence would be to break it into two sentences, using a full stop, a capital letter and then a comma:

There’s usually no need to book. However, please let us know in advance if you’re coming as part of a large group.

Remember: Full stop. Cap. Comma.

2. Use but

You could also use but instead of however, with or without a preceding comma:

There’s usually no need to book, but please let us know in advance if you’re coming as part of a large group.

There’s usually no need to book but please let us know in advance if you’re coming as part of a large group.

Ah, but didn’t someone once tell you to always use however instead of but because but is too negative?

Poppycock! Is this use of but negative?

I didn’t think I’d enjoy the play but it was brilliant!

And does the however in this example make the blow any less crushing?

We read your CV with great interest. However, we regret your application was unsuccessful.

The only thing more soul-destroying than this would be to receive a letter saying We read your CV with great interest, however we regret your application was unsuccessful. That sends the message: yes, we’re illiterate, however we still don’t want you!

3. Use a semicolon

You could, of course, use a semicolon instead of a comma:

There’s usually no need to book; however, please let us know in advance if you’re coming as part of a large group.

But who wants to see a semicolon in business writing? Not this writer, for sure. They’re just a way to turn two short, punchy sentences into one longer, stuffier one.

Besides, chances are, if you haven’t got your head around comma splices, your grasp of colons and semicolons is likely to be wobbly too.

4. Reorder the sentence

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule that you should never put a comma before however. For example, if you give your however a different position in the sentence:

There’s usually no need to book. Please let us know, however, if you’re coming as part of a large group.

In this example, the however interrupts the statement Please let us know if you’re coming as part of a large group.

It can be removed and the sentence still makes sense. In such instances, you need a comma both before and after the however.

Of course, there’s something a little more formal – academic almost – about this word order.

In a business context, it would probably be better to put your however at the start of the sentence.

In which case: Full stop. Cap. Comma.

9 Responses to “The punctuation mistake you never knew you were making”

  1. Jen says:

    Great post! I’m sure I have committed this sin. However, I won’t in the future!

  2. Brad Shorr says:

    Thanks for the grammar tips, Clare; always helpful. No matter how diligently I study colons and semicolons I never feel confident using them, so I take the coward’s way out and use dashes. But now that’s not even working, as they’ve got me worrying about en dashes versus em dashes.

  3. Nige Bamford says:

    OK, I’ll stick my head above the parapet. Why is it acceptable to precede ‘but’ with a comma but not ‘however’?

  4. However is invariably spelt with a capital H as far as I’m concerned. However, I do find that I use the word ‘although’ quite a lot. Is this an acceptable substitute for ‘but’?

  5. Clare Lynch says:

    Brad – I’m a big fan of the dash so we’re united in our cowardice. And like you, I’m uncertain about the en/em issue. I figure I can’t be expected to be a grammar expert AND a typography expert.

    Nige – the answer is that “however” is an adverb and “but” is a conjunction. I can’t really say more than that except that it’s a rule you just have to learn!

    Shooting Parrots – I’ve got no problem with “although”, so although away!

  6. Clare Lynch says:

    Jen, you’ve made an old grammar nerd very happy.

  7. Steve says:

    ‘the comma splice is up there with the grocer’s (grocers’?) apostrophe as the grammar crime most likely to elicit tuts of derision from the punctuation-conscious reader.’

    Oof, all I can say is the tut muscle must be highly fatigue resistant.

    Don’t forget the question of whether to space the en/em-dash. And whether you’re in North America or not. Ok, revenge attack for the odd comma splice :)

  8. Neil says:

    I don’t think the word “however” should ever be used as a substitute for “but”. I use it only in the following context: “However hard he tried, Neil couldn’t help being irritated by his colleagues’ use of the word ‘leverage’ as a verb.”

  9. TopknotPigeon says:

    ‘However’ is not a word you may want to use at all, according to Plain English rules ‘but’ is preferred. You could also use commas, full stops and semi colons to break up sentences or put two ideas together.

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