Again, however

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Looking through the Penn Parsed Corpus of Modern British English (PPCMBE2), I saw that one of its sources is Chapter 10 of Volume 2 of Jane Austen's Emma. I've been using seven or eight different audiobook versions of that novel as a source of examples and exercises in ling521 over the past few years, so I thought I'd take a look at the relationship between syntactic structure and performance prosody in that chapter.

Listening to the second sentence raises some interesting questions:

Busy as he was, however, the young man was yet able to shew a most happy countenance on seeing Emma again. [source]

Details aside, it seems clear that in this sentence

  • "however" is a kind of prosodic tag;
  • "however" is prosodically bound to the phrase that precedes it.

Thereby, however, hangs a tale or two.

Seven other performances of this sentence from Librivox recordings of the same work are similar — and so are many of the other examples that I've checked of phrase-medial "however", in audiobooks and radio broadcasts and so on. My intuition about how I'd say those examples agrees with the recordings, for what that's worth. And the same pattern often applies to many other medial conjunctive sentence adverbs (or whatever these are), like "therefore", "it seems", and so on.

The PPCMBE2 parse for that sentence, however, treats "however" as symmetrically interpolated:

                    (ADJ Busy)
                    (PP (P as)
                        (CP-CMP (WADJP-1 0)
                                (C 0)
                                (IP-SUB (ADJP *T*-1)
                                        (NP-SBJ (PRO he))
                                        (BED was)))))
          (, ,)
          (ADVP (WADV+ADV however))
          (, ,)
          (NP-SBJ (D the) (ADJ young) (N man))
          (BED was)
          (ADVP (ADV yet))
          (ADJP (ADJ able)
                (IP-INF (TO to)
                        (VB shew)
                        (NP-OB1 (D a)
                                (ADJP (QS most) (ADJ happy))
                                (N countenance))))
          (PP (P on)
              (IP-PPL (VAG seeing) 
                      (NP-OB1 (NPR Emma))
                      (ADVP (ADV again))))
          (. .))  (ID AUSTEN-1815-2,156.6))

Does the prosody encode something about the information structure, or is the non-initial position of however a syntactic option of purely stylistic effect? And should the syntactic structure directly encode the tag-like nature of however's performance? Or does some other process map a parenthetical interpolation into a sort of prosodic clitic?

This connects to a century-old issue about usage. In "The evolution of disornamentation", 2/21/2005, I quoted William Strunk's The elements of style on one of the entries in his list of "Words And Expressions Commonly Misused":

However. In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause.

The roads were almost impassable. However, we at last succeeded in reaching camp. The roads were almost impassable. At last, however, we succeeded in reaching camp.
When however comes first, it means in whatever way or to whatever extent.
However you advise him, he will probably do as he thinks best.
However discouraging the prospect, he never lost heart.

We've posted about however-placement rules several times since, sometimes in the context of the related "zombie rule" No Initial Coordinators (NIC): "Fossilized prejudices about 'however'"; "If they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all" (10/31/2006); "However,…" (11/01/2006);"However: retraction of a defense of Strunk" (3/26/2009); "Also, check the back seat" (11/7/2009).

In those posts, you'll find plenty of clause-initial howevers from elite writers, and it's clear that in this case, Strunk was guilty of the ill-informed pontification that's all too typical of his commentary. Jane Austen's Emma is no exception — of that work's 127 instances of  however in the sense under discussion, 19 (15%) are clause-initial.

But I'm starting to think that our zeal to prove him wrong distracted us from an interesting and relevant issue, namely the different reasons for different choices of where to put however, and the prosodic correlates of those reasons. More on that later!





  1. Rob Grayson said,

    December 29, 2020 @ 3:37 am

    An observation: it seems to me that "however" is functioning similarly to "though" in the sentence in question. (And "though" clearly doesn't work sentence-initially in this context.)

  2. JPL said,

    December 29, 2020 @ 3:58 am

    Kenneth Pike always used to say, "Without contrast, linguistics is dead!" I suspect that in order to answer this question (What are the "different reasons for different choices of where to put 'however', and the prosodic correlates of those reasons?") one will have to look at several (or many) other contrasts than just these ones; and it goes without saying that we would also need to look at the equivalences. For example, one would want to understand the differences and equivalences among expressions such as 'however', 'but', 'nevertheless', 'although' wrt the meanings expressed (involving the formal and perhaps contentive relation between the propositions connected), and wrt the functionally identified syntactic positions they can fill. For example, it doesn't help when Strunk refers to "'however' in the meaning "nevertheless", and we would want to note that perhaps the central meaning expressed by 'however' in what Zwicky calls its "linking" use is also present in a slightly different role in what he calls its "concessive" use. So what is known about these matters? What does it indicate that for the "parenthetical" sentence- medial "however" in the Austen example, you can't have "but" in that position? Or that in initial position a "however" is stressed, but a "but" is typically not? Anyway, a very interesting problem, and I'm looking forward to your promised thoughts on the issue.

  3. Chris Button said,

    December 29, 2020 @ 9:27 am

    Surely Strunk has etymology on his side despite not reflecting actual usage for a long time? Is there really no evidence for this in the historical record?

    [(myl) No, Strunk doesn't have history on his side. The OED's citations for sense 3, "Qualifying a sentence or clause as a whole: For all that, nevertheless, notwithstanding; yet; = but at the beginning of the sentence" —

    1623 W. Shakespeare & J. Fletcher Henry VIII iv. i. 108 All the Land knowes that: How euer, yet there is no great breach.
    1671 J. Milton Samson Agonistes 601 I however Must not omit a Fathers timely care.
    1766 O. Goldsmith Vicar of Wakefield I. x. 92 This curiosity of theirs, however, was attended with very serious effects.
    1790 E. Burke Refl. Revol. in France 27 However they did not think such bold changes within their commission.
    1861 M. Pattison in Westm. Rev. Apr. 415 It has been even said that this church was built by the Germans, which however was not the case.
    1865 J. Lubbock Prehist. Times i. 19 Bronze arrows, however, are not very common in Northern Europe.

    Here two out of six examples are clause-initial — and a similar proportion is found across other 17th and 18th C. texts. ]

  4. Chris Button said,

    December 29, 2020 @ 10:16 am

    Just listening to the recording, "was" is the typical implicational fall-rise. However, without looking at a spectrogram, it sounds to me to be fully contained on "was" rather than spreading.

    [(myl) Here's the pitch contour of the start:


  5. Grover Jones said,

    December 29, 2020 @ 11:28 am

    Agree with Chris Button. Seems clear from how Emma Thompson uses "was" that she is properly setting up, so to speak, the "however" to follow.

  6. Haamu said,

    December 29, 2020 @ 1:37 pm

    Is there a formatting error in the parse? It looks like “seeing” and its closing paren (and likely a line break) have been omitted.

    [(myl) Good catch! A cut-and-paste error, now fixed — thanks!]

  7. Adrian Bailey said,

    December 30, 2020 @ 1:09 pm

    However and yet have a similar meaning; either could have been omitted from the sentence. I suppose that including both has an intensifying effect.

  8. JPL said,

    December 31, 2020 @ 2:49 am

    @Adrian Bailey:

    These are the kinds of things I was hinting at in my comment above. Omitting one or both of these expressions in that example results in increasing ambiguity between (what I'll call roughly and tentatively) the direct or the contra interpretation. And I was suggesting that we would need to get a little more fine-grained and describe more precisely any equivalent aspects in the meanings of the expressions, as well as the differences between them (because there are differences), taking into consideration their different syntactic positions. But let me back up a little. It would be helpful to have some of the text previous to this sentence, because I suspect that the relation expressed by "however" connects not the parts of this sentence, but this sentence with the previous text. "Busy as he was" seems to me possibly like other expressions such as "Be that as it may" or "Given that …" that iterate reference to given information from the previous text. Initial position in English sentences can indicate meanings associated with information structure for the content expressed in that position, such as continuation of given information or topic shift. In the example, "Busy as he was" seems to indicate given information from previous text that is relevant for the present sentence, and the expression non-initially of the "contra" (as opposed to "direct") relation by "however" gets the "parenthetical" (low tone) intonation; "however" in initial position, otoh, would indicate a shift or contrast with previous text, and would thus get intonational prominence or stress (high pitch, etc.). If it were "Busy as he was, consequently, the young man was able to shew …." we would imagine a different preceding text. (The question of the reasons for putting "consequently" in initial position yet to be addressed) So the intonation of "however" seems to be determined by initial vs non-initial position, and the prosodic binding to the previous phrase would indicate the two expressions form a syntactic unit, while the connective function (a dependency relation the precise nature of which needs to be described more fully) holds between the present and the previous sentences. (Although "however" is prosodically bound to the phrase that precedes it, the rising intonation on it indicates non-finality or incompleteness, not what you get with a symmetrical relation like with coordinating conjunction.) I don't know if any of this is on the right track, so if anybody has a better idea I'd be interested. In any case, it's a nice problem.

  9. Chris Button said,

    December 31, 2020 @ 12:01 pm

    (myl) Here's the pitch contour of the start:

    So three intonation phrases, matching the commas in the transcription. And we have an implication fall rise on "\/was" in the first one and then "\ev/er" in the second one.

  10. JPL said,

    December 31, 2020 @ 8:34 pm

    Sorry, BTW, continuing with the theme of exploring contrasts, wouldn't it also be possible to replace the Austen sentence with something like, "The young man was [yet] able to shew a most happy countenance on seeing Emma again, however.", with "however" in sentence-final position? In which case it would (I would guess) get a rising intonational contour similar to the one in medial position in the example sentence. (That kind of sentence final intonation is itself kind of weird, and I think I used to know what it means, but I've forgotten.) So it seems that position of the expression "however" in the sentence is irrelevant to the logical relation expressed by it, and also to the particular propositions so related. Differences in the intonational contour respond to differences in the meanings associated with information structure, which are themselves related to syntactic position, specifically, initial position being the place to indicate contrast (roughly) with the preceding text. This goes against Strunk's "analysis": he seems to be comparing apples with oranges. Zwicky made the distinction between the "linking" and the "concessive" senses for initial "however", after all.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    January 1, 2021 @ 8:58 am

    Reading "The young man was [yet] able to shew a most happy countenance on seeing Emma again, however" to myself, I hear only three low level tones for "however", with the second being lightly stressed. Without recording myself and passing the audio through PRAAT or similar, I cannot say whether this light stress might of itself require a small elevation in pitch for the /ev/ element.

  12. RfP said,

    January 1, 2021 @ 4:01 pm

    @JPL: Differences in the intonational contour respond to differences in the meanings associated with information structure, which are themselves related to syntactic position, specifically, initial position being the place to indicate contrast (roughly) with the preceding text.

    IANALinguist, so I’m not sure that I completely understand this issue. But if I do understand it, JPL’s comment is extremely important, as it gets to the heart of an issue that I feel—speaking as a writer—is too often overlooked.

    The Movement of English Prose, by Ian A. Gordon, is one of my favorite books on the English language. I’ve never gotten very far into it, but the beginning is a damn good one!

    Here are a few juicy quotes, strung together to make what I hope is a coherent commentary on this question. I would love to hear what actual linguists might think of this analysis!

    “Much of the conventional history of the English language records mere changes on the surface, and ignores the unchanging elements, the permanent contours of the language.”

    “The most important of these essential features which have persisted with little or no change during the whole history of the English language are vocabulary, voice-stress with its associated phenomenon of segmentation, and a continuing array of phrase and sentence patterns.”

    “More than any other feature of the language, [the English system of voice stress] has led to a basic stability in English prose of every period. It is a real foundation of ‘continuity’.”

    “Stress in Old English verse (and hence in prose) was closely linked with meaning; the semantically important words were uttered with more emphasis.”

    “The stress rhythm of Old English prose is thus essentially the stress-rhythm of the prose of today… [Despite the loss of] dozens of unstressed inflexions in the eleventh and twelfth centuries … The basic rhythm of English prose was preserved. It had to be, because more than rhythm was involved. The rhythm of an English spoken sentence has always been part of the meaning.”

  13. Chris Button said,

    January 6, 2021 @ 10:39 am

    To be clear, I mean three intonation phrases marked by the commas in "… was, however, the …" in the transcription. I don't mean there are only three intonation phrases in the whole sentence.

    By the way, is there still going to be a follow-up post on this?

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