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“which).

So is “though” (–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.”

Testing, testing

I’m posting Katharine’s comment about how to tell that phrase “at which point” turns a sentence into a fragment because it brings up a technique I discovered while looking for help teaching freshman composition: intuitive grammar tests.

Most native speakers, I assume, use intuitive tests from time to time. The one everyone seems to know tests whether “I” or “me” is correct in sentences like:

They’re coming with Jane and I.

The test: eliminate “Jane.”

They’re coming with I. WRONG

They’re coming with me. RIGHT


They’re coming with Jane and me. RIGHT

Turns out there are all kinds of useful tests, but nobody ever tells you what they are.

Katie’s test for “at which point”: insert a comma after “at which point” and see how it sounds.

The rules for what sorts of words can modify complete sentences seems somewhat arbitrary–i.e., not based entirely on meaning. “However” can introduce a complete sentence; “though” can’t. “At that point” can; “At which point” can’t. One way to test for this is to see if it works to pause–-or add a comma–-after the phrase in question. Cf:

“However, I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.” (fine)

“Though, I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.” (weird)

“At that point, you realize that it doesn’t express one more advantage…” (fine)

“At which point, you realize that it doesn’t express one more advantage.” (weird)

This may relate to where the intuitive ear comes in.