Showdown – Conjunctive Adverbs versus Coordinating Conjunctions

Kevin writes:

Your semicolon discussions inspired this inquiry. Many of my students use “however” as a conjunction when they are really using it as a signal adverb to begin an independent clause.

Example: My professor is a kind soul at heart, however he is a nasty grader.

I insist that the comma should be a semicolon or period, but I’m overwhelmed with students who use “however” as the equivalent of “but.” I am increasingly seeing this usage in periodicals and among my colleagues as well. Do you think, English Master, that this usage rule is going the way of the split infinitive?

Kevin, you are right; your students are wrong. Your colleagues should know better. Your example above should read: My professor is a kind soul at heart; however, he is a nasty grader. It also, as you mention, could be split into two sentences.

It’s easy to understand why so many people would make the mistake. After all, why should anyone assume that two words with the same meaning would function differently in a sentence?

“However” is a conjunctive adverb. I like to call conjunctive adverbs “fancy joiners,” because they’re usually polysyllabic and sound more formal than their more common equivalents. Others include therefore, nevertheless, hence, in fact, and indeed.

“But” is a coordinating conjunction, or what I like to call a “common joiner.” The other coordinating conjunctions are and, or, for, not, yet, and so. If you substitute but</em for however in your sentence, it would look like this: My professor is a kind soul at heart, but he is a nasty grader.

If you think in terms of fancy versus common, then it makes sense that a conjunctive adverb (fancy joiner) should get a semicolon, because semicolons really do seem fancier than commas, right?

Extra Credit:
Keep in mind that our discussion so far refers only to these punctuation marks when they are joining two independent clauses, or groups of words that can stand alone as sentences. If “however” were moved to a different position in the second clause, it would be offset by commas. Sure, we’d still have the semicolon to join the two independent clauses, but our conjunctive adverb would get a little different treatment. Back to our example: My professor is a kind soul at heart; he is, however, a nasty grader.

Phew! I hope I didn’t confuse matters more. If anyone needs clarification on this issue, post a comment and I’ll emend the entry as necessary.

Kevin, as to your question about where this rule will go, I am no grammatical soothsayer. The rule for not splitting infinitives has had a shady past, so it’s only fair that people are abandoning it, even if unconsciously. I’m not sure, though, about the semicolon rule. I, for one, am going to hold onto it tenaciously. They’ll have to pry it out of my cold, dead… Okay, enough of that.

This entry was posted in grammar. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One Response to Showdown – Conjunctive Adverbs versus Coordinating Conjunctions

  1. Aunt Ginny says:

    Great resource, Karl, but reading this makes my head swim the same way it did in English class. It reminds me why I majored in art!