Was Strunk imitating Quintilian?

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Bill Walderman asked

Is it possible that the "rule" requiring the placement of "however" as the second element of a sentence (or at least not the first element) … originated as an attempt to impose Latin and Greek syntax or word order on English? In Latin, there are a number of particles such as "autem" that can't be placed at the beginning of a clause and usually appear as the second element. And Ancient Greek is extremely exuberant in particles that must be placed as the second element of a clause and can't stand as the first element.

This is an interesting suggestion, which hadn't occurred to me before. On reflection, it seems quite plausible that the odd grammatical myth forbidding initial however was originally a transfer from the treatment of autem and some other words in Latin, beaten into Will Strunk in his youth.

But to start with, the grammar of Latin autem "on the other hand" seems to be a bit of a puzzle in itself.

The most familiar second-position elements in Latin are monosyllabic enclitics like -que "and", -ne "question", -ve "or", which are written as part of the word they attach to; and they can't be clause-initial precisely because they must be attached to the end of some full word. But autem does not seem to be one of these enclitics — it's not a monosyllable, for one thing; it's not written solid with the preceding word; and it's apparently derived from the combination of a connective (which can occur in initial position) with a demonstrative. The Oxford Latin Dictionary analyzes autem as "aut + -em (cf.  item and quidem)"; and the Latin connectives et "and", aut "or", vel "or",  sed "but", etc., are happy to be clause-initial.

Lewis & Short note about autem that "it is never found at the beginning of a clause, but after one or more words". The OLD says that it is "regularly placed in the second position in its clause, but occasionally postponed, when the first two or three words form a closely-knit (e.g. prepositional) phrase".  And indeed, this appears to uniformly true, from early Latin to late, in all the 11,193 instances where this word occurs in extant Latin prose (not that I've checked them all).

Thus in Plautus' Casina we get

Convenit. vin tuis Chalinum huc evocem verbis foras?
tu eum orato, ego autem orabo vilicum.

That's agreed upon. Should you like that, in your name, I should call Chalinus hither out of doors? Do you beg of him, and I'll beg of the bailiff. [Translation by Henry Thomas Riley]

And in Plautus' Menaechmi we get:

Lumbi sedendo, oculi spectando dolent,
manendo medicum, dum se ex opere recipiat.
odiosus tandem vix ab aegrotis venit.
ait se obligasse crus fractum Aesculapio,
Apollini autem brachium. nunc cogito,
utrum me dicam ducere medicum an fabrum.
atque eccum incedit.

My bones ache with sitting, my eyes with watching, while waiting for the Doctor, till he returned from his business. At last the troublesome fellow has with difficulty got away from his patients. He says that he has set a broken leg for Aesculapius and an arm for Apollo. I'm now thinking whether I'm to say that I'm bringing a doctor or a carpenter. But, see, here he comes. [Translation by Henry Thomas Riley]

Or in one of Cicero's orations:

hunc praesentem eis adfecit honoribus quos habuit amplissimos; vos autem absens orat atque obsecrat ut sua religio, laudatio, auctoritas aliquid apud vestros animos momenti habuisse videatur.

They distinguished him while he was among them by the greatest honours which they had to bestow; and now, though absent from this place, they pray and entreat you that their blameless character, their panegyric, and their authority may appear to have some weight with you in forming your opinions. [Translation by C.D. Yonge]

As you can see from these examples, autem is not very much like however in its meaning. Lewis & Short gloss it "on the other hand, but, yet, however, nevertheless; sometimes an emphasized and", and note that "it joins to a preceding thought a new one, either entirely antithetical or simply different".

Because the classical syntax of autem was apparently so uniform, Plautus and Cicero presumably placed it in second position without any explicit instruction — that's just how their language worked.  But in the first century A.D., Quintilian's textbook on rhetoric, the Institutio Oratoria, offers explicit advice on this point (I.5.39):

There is, however, some controversy as to the number and nature of the different kinds of solecism. Those who have dealt with the subject most fully make a fourfold division, identical with that which is made in the case of barbarisms: solecisms are brought about by addition, for instance in phrases such as nam enim, de susum, in Alexandriam;  by omission, in phrases such as ambulo viam, Aegypto venio, or ne hoc fecit: and by transposition as in quoque ego, enim hoc voluit, autem non habuit.42 Under this last head comes the question whether igitur can be placed first in a sentence: for I note that authors of the first rank disagree on this point, some of them frequently placing it in that position, others never. [Translation by H.E. Butler]

42i.e. nam cannot be coupled with enim; de being a preposition cannot govern an adverb ("from above"); in is not required with Alexandriam, which is the name of a town. Quoque, enim and autem cannot come first in a sentence. Ambulo per viam, ab Aegypto venio, ne hoc quidem fecit would be the correct Latin. [Editor's note from Butler's Loeb edition]

[Yes, it really is footnote 42…]

But enim "indeed" is a bit different from autem, in that Plautus and Terence sometimes use it clause-initially. And quoque "also, even" seems to be be even more different — it's "subjoined to the emphatic word in a clause", as Lewis & Short put it, or "usu. placed directly after the word to which it belongs", as the OLD explains, not placed in second position. Thus in Cicero's Pro C. Rabirio Postvmo:

… me scilicet maxime, sed proxime illum quoque fefellissem.

… I should have behaved dishonestly, principally, indeed, to myself, but in the next degree to him also [Translation C.D. Yonge]

[Though in the particular examples cited above, and a few others that I've now looked at, it could be argued that the word or phrase preceding autem is emphasized as the constrasting element, in a way exactly analogous to the function of quoque. There would still be a difference in the preference for association with emphatic words at the beginning of a clause. ]

Anyhow, the grammar of Latin autem, and the authority of Quintilian in treating the initial placement of autem, enim, quoque as a solecism, may very well be the what put into Will Strunk's mind the germ of the idea that English however ought to be similarly restricted.

Bill Walderman's comment continues:

I don't have access to the OED–-perhaps someone could trace the use of "however" through the history of English to see whether it was used as the first element of a clause early in its history and only later began to be displaced from its position of priority.

The OED's list of citations doesn't really support this idea:

however 3. "Qualifying a sentence or clause as a whole: For all that, nevertheless, notwithstanding; yet; = but at the beginning of the sentence"

1613 SHAKES. Hen. VIII, IV. i. 106 All the Land knowes that: How euer, yet there is no great breach.
MILTON Samson 601, I, however, Must not omit a father's timely care.
GOLDSM. Vic. W. x, This curiosity of theirs, however, was attended with very serious effects.
BURKE Fr. Rev. 27 However, they did not think such bold changes within their commission.
M. PATTISON Ess. (1889) I. 47 It has been even said that this church was built by the Germans, which however was not the case.
LUBBOCK Preh. Times 19 Bronze arrows, however, are not very common in Northern Europe.

Geoff Pullum has speculated that there might have been a late-19th-century fashion for postponing however, but his evidence turned out to be flawed. This idea might still turn out to be statistically valid — and perhaps Latin composition exercises influenced this trend, if this trend existed.

Pending a larger-scale investigation, this whole line of reasoning is speculative at best. But it might help explain where Will Strunk got the strange impulse to declare that Mark Twain used however incorrectly two-thirds of the time.


  1. Bill Walderman said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    MYL, thanks for the elucidation of tamen. Another Latin word that may have influenced the "rule" barring placement of "however" in clause-initial position is tamen, which is adversative and thus closer in use to "however" than autem. The OLD entry for this word shows that it could be placed in clause-initial position, but, just like "however" in English (and perhaps for the same reason suggested below), there seems to have been a stylistic preference for not doing so.

    Here's another thought (admittedly speculative and not supported by research): "However" is useful precisely because, unlike "but," it doesn't have to be placed in clause-initial position and its placement can emphasize the element of the clause that contrasts with the preceding clause. For example: "The program did not appeal to some of the participants; the reaction of others, however, was more favorable." For this reason, maybe a tendency emerged in English to use the shorter and punchier word "but" as the first element of a clause, and to reserve "however" for a later position where it can effectively draw a sharper contrast between the key elements of the comparison. Perhaps S&W and other proponents of the "rule" against clause-initial "however" have elevated what is a statistical tendency to the level of a commandment.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    Bill Walderman speculates that perhaps "However" is useful precisely because, unlike "but," it doesn't have to be placed in clause-initial position and its placement can emphasize the element of the clause that contrasts with the preceding clause.

    I think there's something to this. Thus the OED's second citation for however surely does emphasize the constrasting element "I" in a way that but would not:

    1671 MILTON Samson 601, I, however, Must not omit a father's timely care.

    Of course, the same is true for a number of similar adverbials, like "on the other hand" or "in contrast". And there are many examples of non-initial however where the pre-however material doesn't seem to be contrastively emphasized, even if the placement of however helps to bring out an intended accent. Thus in yesterday's NYT

    It is intended to be funny — and occasionally it is — but it’s mostly just clumsy. (You do, however, have to admire a choreographer who thinks that audiences might find humor in an onstage electric-chair scene. …)

  3. Simon Spero said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    But, the entry for But, the OED gives the following sense:
    ** In a distinct member of a compound sentence (usually after a semicolon or colon); or at the beginning of a following sentence.

    25. Introducing a statement of the nature of an exception, objection, limitation, or contrast to what has gone before; sometimes, in its weakest form, merely expressing disconnexion, or emphasizing the introduction of a distinct or independent fact, as the minor premiss of a syllogism: However, on the other hand, moreover, yet. In OE. ac, Ger. aber, L. autem.

    Therefore I am confused.

    Would you expect to see a significant difference between the ratio of capitalized However to lower-cased however over the course of the 19th century using the author's date of birth; would there be a difference between the ratio for But over time? Are the predictions only for "Good" writing?

    I'm wondering if Project Gutenberg would work as a quick-and-dirty corpus?

  4. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    As Latin autem was used routinely to translate the Greek postpositive δέ, I wonder if Greek style also had some affect on the classical Latin usage.

  5. Jakel said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    @Stephen C. Carlson; that's the interesting/frustrating thing about conversations like this, at some point its elephants all the way down. If Classic Greek grammar about the use δέ influenced Latin grammar about autem, which influenced English grammar about however, was there potentially some earlier language's grammar that influenced Greek grammar about δέ, and so forth all the way back to when the first hominids were scraping together the first languages?

  6. Fred said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    [Quintilian] "…for instance in phrases such as nam enim, de susum, …". Is that a typo for "de sursum"?

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    Stephen C. Carlson: As Latin autem was used routinely to translate the Greek postpositive δέ, I wonder if Greek style also had some affect on the classical Latin usage.

    It seems unlikely to me that an influence of this kind could cause autem to be essentially 100% non-initial, in contrast to (say) immo, which was routinely sentence initial, although it might often have been used to translate the Greek enclitic γε.

    In the case of however, the puzzle is that Strunk decided that it should always be non-initial, in defiance of centuries of English literature. The usual analysis of this pathology is suggested by his presentation of the rule as if it prevented ambiguity:

    However. In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause. […]
    When however comes first, it means in whatever way or to whatever extent.

    But Bill Walderman's suggestion of leakage from autem is worth considering as well, at least to the extent that we really care about Strunk's psychodynamics. Please do keep in mind that all this has essentially nothing to do with the grammar of English.

  8. Polish Alice said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    What about mentoi in Greek?

    Mentoi is not supposed to be used at the beginning of the sentence and the rule influenced how I wrote in English while I was taking Ancient Greek.

  9. Jay Rudin said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    All the 18th and 19th century grammarians were copying Latin grammar, because they had learned Latin grammar in school. They inferred (correctly) that knowledge of Latin grammar was the mark of a good education, and then inferred (falsely) that English grammar had the same structure. That’s the origin of such rules as not ending sentences with prepositions and not splitting infinitives (both of which are impossible in Latin but work fine in English and always have*).

    *Note that this structure is also impossible in Latin.

    If they instead the German language had studied, then like this perhaps they the English language to be structured would have insisted.

  10. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 3:32 am

    I think you mean:

    If they the German language studied had, then would they the English language like this structured to be insisted have.

    But my German is pretty rusty and I'm quite prepared to stand corrected.

  11. Chris Lance said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 4:12 am

    At school (in England) 50 or 60 years ago, I was taught that however should always be placed as the second element in a sentence, and I still have a mild preference for this over the initial placement (as a matter of personal style, of course: it's not a question of "right" or "wrong"). What really grates with me, however, is the use of however as a simple equivalent of but, used to introduce a clause without even a succeeding comma. I notice this particularly in management-speak, as in "Turnover was down in the fourth quarter, however sales recovered strongly in the new year."

  12. Bill Walderman said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

    "At school (in England) 50 or 60 years ago, I was taught that however should always be placed as the second element in a sentence,"

    Interesting. This "rule" has apparently been foisted on young people on the other side of the Atlantic, too, and isn't just a creature of S&W.

  13. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

    I once read a lovely description (where? I can't remember) of a speaker using initial "however" like a blackboard duster. He used the word to wipe out whatever it was he'd just been saying and to clear his listeners' minds so that they were ready to take in what he was going to say. The speaker, if I remember rightly, was an army officer addressing officer cadets.

  14. Erin S. said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

    Could it simply be that the case of however as an initial placement just fell under the same category as coordinating conjunctions as initial placements? In elementary school, we're taught never to start a sentence with "and" or "but," but mostly it's just so that we don't construct a dependent clause under the assumption that it's an independent clause because it has a subject and a verb. However, once we know better, we can negotiate the coordinating conjunctions and when and where to use them. Sometimes, though, these rules live on "because that's what I was taught in elementary school." We continue using "and" or "but" only to join two sentences and not to begin sentences because that's what we were taught. I think that anyone who's okay with using "and" or "but" to begin a sentence is probably okay with using however in the initial placement.

  15. Arnold Zwicky said,

    April 3, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    Erin S.: "Could it simply be that the case of however as an initial placement just fell under the same category as coordinating conjunctions as initial placements?"

    One of the frustrating things about comments on Language Log is that they so often take up ideas that have been discussed, often at length, in earlier postings, so that the topic gets re-started from scratch. There's a survey of much of this topic here, with links to Language Log discussions.

    Erin S.: "I think that anyone who's okay with using "and" or "but" to begin a sentence is probably okay with using however in the initial placement."

    This is pretty much exactly backwards. The principal current opponent of sentence-initial connective however, Bryan Garner, offers several replacements, but his favorite is sentence-initial but. That is, Garner is fond of sentence-initial but, but recommends against ever using sentence-initial connective however. And he is far from alone in this.

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