How not to over-season your writing. Part One: Therefore and However

Something I’ve noticed that many writers do – particularly those for whom English is not their first language – is pepper their essays, dissertations and articles with words they imagine will strengthen their argument, but which actually tend to have the reverse effect, particularly if the peppering is too liberal or the words are quite simply misused. If the argument of a piece of writing stacks up, most of these words can probably be dispensed with. They do nothing to strengthen an argument in themselves and, if a piece of writing does not make logical sense, no amount of sprinkling it with ‘however’s, ‘on the other hand’s, ‘moreover’s and ‘thus’s will fix it.

The words most commonly used in this (frequently vain) attempt to hold an essay or dissertation together are: therefore, hence, as such, however, furthermore, moreover, nevertheless, thus, and on one/the other hand.

There is often some misunderstanding as to what these words actually mean and what they are for, so let me first discuss each one in turn.

Therefore

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘therefore’ as meaning ‘for that reason’, ‘accordingly’ and ‘consequently’.  A test as to whether you are using ‘therefore’ correctly is to replace it with ‘for that reason’ and see if what you are writing still makes sense.  Too often, writers insert ‘therefore’ at the beginning of a sentence when there is no real causal connection with what went before – there is no actual reason to which ‘for that reason’ could meaningfully be attached, and ‘therefore’ is used instead as a sort of sticking plaster in the attempt to cover up the lack of a logical argument.  At other times, ‘therefore’ is simply unnecessary as the argument speaks for itself.

‘Therefore’ (for that reason) should not be, but often is, confused with ‘thereby’ (by that means).

Fowler’s Modern English Usage tells us that ‘therefore’ has been part of the English language since the 12th century and discusses whether or not the word needs to be separated off by a comma or commas.  It is less likely to need an accompanying comma, or pair of commas, when used in a short sentence and in association with a particular word or phrase.  (Fowler’s provides the example: ‘The relationship of patronage was therefore complex.’)  You are more likely to want to separate ‘therefore’ off with a pair of commas (which act in this case like brackets, or parentheses) in a longer sentence and when the force of ‘therefore’ extends throughout the sentence.

However

It is worth considering ‘however’ next, as it can be thought of as the opposite of ‘therefore’ (and is probably the most frequently over-used, and mis-used, word of the lot).

If ‘therefore’ means ‘for that reason’, then ‘however’ implies ‘despite that reason’.  In other words, ‘therefore’ presents what one may expect as the result of a particular fact, while ‘however’ presents what one does not expect.

Again, it is important that you do not try to get ‘however’ to do the work of building up a logical argument; it should not be used as a shortcut.  And more often than not, if your argument makes logical sense, you can dispense with ‘however’ and your writing will sound more authoritative as a result.

Stylistically, ‘however’ is better used in the middle of a sentence than at its opening, but care needs to be taken over its accompanying punctuation.  It should generally be separated off from the rest of the sentence by commas – but it should not merely be preceded by a single comma.  Its usage is, in fact, surrounded by pitfalls.  Let me show what I mean by three examples:

‘”However” can be a useful word.  It is not, however, an easy word to use correctly.’ – CORRECT

‘”However” can be a useful word.  However, it is not an easy word to use correctly.’ – Also CORRECT, if slightly  less elegant.

‘”However” can be a useful word, however it is not an easy word to use correctly.’ – INCORRECT.

In the third example, the comma before the second ‘however’ does not make for a long enough pause and, when read out loud, would suggest that the ‘however’ refers to the opening part of the sentence – as in ‘”However” can be a useful word, however.’  This would suggest a preceding sentence, such as: ‘Certain words are best avoided when you are learning to write English.  “However” can be a useful word, however.’

Another meaning of ‘however’ when it follows a comma is to qualify an adjective, as in:

‘”However” can be a useful word, however difficult it may be to use it correctly.’

In general, if you find you are using ‘however’ a great deal, you are almost certainly over-using it.  Your writing will almost definitely be improved – less spoilt by its seasoning – if you just try deleting a few ‘however’s.

Few or a few?

A student whose first language is Italian was asking me recently what the difference is between ‘few’ and ‘a few’ and when to use which one.  Does ‘a few’ mean many? she asked, in some frustration.  No, I replied, ‘a few’ means several, more than one or two, but not many.  But it does mean more than ‘few’.

I decided not to confuse her further by venturing into ‘quite a few’, but offered a few (i.e. some!) examples:

So – There are a few problems in this text does not mean ‘There are many problems in this text’, but it does mean that there are some problems in it, and they’d better be fixed before it’s submitted.

Whereas – ‘There are few problems with your argument’ means ‘There are hardly any problems with it, or ‘I might question what you say very slightly, but your argument is on the whole very convincing.’

Or – ‘Few people have never heard of Nelson Mandela’ – i.e. just about everyone has heard of him. But ‘A few people thought there was too much coverage of Mandela’s death on the BBC’ indicates a minority opinion – some, but not very many, people complained.

Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford Paperback Reference) says: ‘Few may be used with or without preceding a, although the sense is slightly different.  There were few seats left means there were not many (and is negative in implication), whereas There were a few seats left means that some were still left (and is positive in implication).’

The Bible and Shakespeare have a few choice fews:

‘For many are called, but few are chosen.’ (Matthew 22:14)

‘God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.’ (Ecclesiastes 5:2)

‘Men of few words are the best men.’ (Henry V, Act 3 scene ii)

‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.’ (Henry V, Act 4 scene iii)