The curious popularity of “however” in research papers

There are many ways to signal a change in direction or mood in text, but the most common is to insert a “but,” as I just did here. Alternatives such as ‘although’, ‘although’, ‘however’, ‘however’ and ‘nevertheless’ usually take a poor second place. In fact, according to Google Books Ngram Viewer and the British National Corpus, each occurs about one-tenth as often as “but”.

In research papers, however, the prevalence of “however” is increasing, especially in certain disciplines.

I searched Elsevier’s Scopus database for article abstracts containing “however”. I then compared them with those containing “but” to work around any differences in text length. In arts subjects, summaries with “however” appeared about half as often as those with “but”, specifically 54% more often, at the time of writing. In the social sciences and life sciences it was 74% and 75%, respectively, and in the physical sciences it was 85%. But in engineering, it was 100% (1.4 million documents each for “however” and “but”).

Here is an example from an engineering abstract, with slightly shortened sentences:

However, almost all studies have been conducted using a powered or electric device. However, the use of an electrical device has several disadvantages.

Engineers’ enthusiasm for the “however” is not unique to summaries. I reviewed a sample of about 1,000 comprehensive journal articles in the fields of physical, life and behavioral sciences, mathematics, medicine, and engineering. Among the non-engineering subjects, “however” appeared 65% more often than “but”, while among the engineering subjects it was 97%, within the limits of the sampling error.

So why do engineers particularly like “however”?

One possibility, suggested by a colleague, is that they are more inclined to observe the rule that ‘but’ should not start a sentence and instead fall back on ‘however’. But like Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage points out, on several editions, that the rule has no basis in either grammar or good writing.

Also, upon closer examination of this sample of articles, I found that engineers differed little from non-engineers in preferring “however” to “but” at the start of a sentence.

Another suggestion was that it’s not that engineers like “however” but that they don’t like “but” – no matter where it is placed. They see it as less refined, less formal. Unfortunately for this idea, although ‘but’ appears less often in the sample in engineering subjects, so do the alternatives ‘although’, ‘although’, ‘yet’ and the ‘nevertheless’. clearly more formal. It seems that “but” is not the problem.

On the contrary, a simpler explanation might hold. Engineers – and others – are more likely to see “however” as a universal tool for signaling the change of direction, and the default in most circumstances. As one former engineer described it, “however” was his go-to option, something you could always rely on.

Yet there are so many alternatives, each with a slightly different meaning and effect.

In addition to those listed previously, they include “yet”, “even so”, “even then”, “even if”, “conversely”, “nevertheless”, “despite”, “instead”, “for all this”, “all the same”, “despite this”, “despite this”, “that said”, “by contrast”, “by contrast”, “on the contrary”, “alternatively” and “on the other hand” ( which, by the way, doesn’t need to have an earlier “on the one hand” to work). Even more can be found in Quirk and colleagues A complete grammar of the English language.

Whatever your research discipline, quantitative or otherwise, if you’re a heavy user of the “however,” why not try abstinence for a while and experiment with the alternatives? But not too many at once in case they give the reader a boost.

If you then want to reintroduce the “however”, sparingly of course, follow the advice of journalist and educator William Zinsser in his guide Write well:

Don’t start a sentence with “however” – it hangs there like a wet rag. And don’t end with “however” – at that point he lost his character.

Zinsser goes on to say that you should then put it on as soon as possible. But since “however” draws attention to what precedes it, finding that early position can sometimes be difficult. For example, in the previous sentence, if you wanted to insert “however” (after removing the “But”), the natural place for it would be at or near the end, where it doesn’t work.

Luckily, so far in this article, I’ve only been able to point out changes in direction with alternatives to “however”. I avoided using it at the beginning of a sentence and at the end, and even anywhere in between. For indulgence, however, I allowed it in that last sentence, which is sufficient.

Featured image via Flickr (public domain)

Amanda J. Marsh