However…

Emerging from a 10-week escape into the world of autism software engineering, I’ve been thinking about “however.” In a comment on my last post, Can You Spot the Sentence Fragment, I cited “however” as a word that introduces full sentences:

…something can contain a subject and predicate and still not be a complete sentence if it begins with certain function words. “Which” (and various which-phrases) is one example (see http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/can-you-start-a-sentence-with-“which).

So is “though” (http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/120981/using-though-at-the-beginning-of-the-following-sentence)–unlike “however”.

“However, he won” is a full sentence; “Though he won.” is not. And punctuating  “Though, he won” like “However, he won” only makes things awkward. (As I argue earlier, modifiers of sentence fragments don’t lend themselves to commas).

“However,” however, is actually ambiguous–as we see when we strip it of its comma:

However, he won.

However he won.

Re-read the second sentence, and you’ll see another meaning emerging: an incomplete proposition that could be completed, for example, as follows:

However he won, he did win.

This “however” belongs to a whole family of words ending in “ever,” none of which introduces a complete sentence:

Whoever voted for him…

Whatever he did to win…

Whenever he tweets…

And adding a comma only makes things worse:

Whatever, he did to win.

“Whatever,” though, is also ambiguous. Sometimes, like “though” in the previous sentence, it can be offset from the rest of the sentence with a punctuation mark. In which case it does introduce a full sentence–rather than a fragment like the one you’re reading right now.

Whatever,” you might be thinking at this point. “Language is a mess; we all have different ears for it.”

But if the (somewhat) arbitrary rules for what’s a complete sentence and what isn’t nonetheless intrigue you, stay tuned for a post on “whatever.”

When things changed

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I’ve had a running joke, at Kitchen Table Math and elsewhere, that something happened in 1985.

Either we were hit by a meteor and we’re all dead but we don’t know it.

Or we were hit by a meteor and knocked into a parallel universe but we don’t know it.

Or — and apparently this one has a number of fans — we’re actually living inside a computer simulation and the programmer changed the rules but we don’t know it.

Anyway, preparing for tomorrow’s class on graduate research and writing, I took a look at Robert Connors’ “The Erasure of the Sentence” (which Katharine writes about here) and discovered that Connors dates the moment when things changed to just two years before I do: he puts it in 1983.

In an astonishing reversal of fortune for sentence rhetorics, [interest in teaching sentences] . . . died away after 1983 or so. The articles on sentence issues fell away radically, and those that were written were more and more about applications to learning disabilities, or English as a second language, or special education. Erstwhile syntactic rhetoricians turned to other issues….

The few general articles that were published after 1986 came more and more to be critical, but even the criticisms died away. After the mid- 1980s, the sentence rhetorics of the 1960s and 1970s were gone….