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Ugly sentences and nice buts

I have something against the word 'however.' It's not used all that much in everyday language, only about 45 times for every million words (according to Subtlex). If that low frequency surprises you, you've been reading too much academic literature, in which 'however' is rampant. I don't have any reliable data on this, but based on a few randomly selected papers, I estimate that the frequency of 'however' in academic language is around 2000 per million. To put this into context: A frequency of 2000 per million would make 'however' one of the most commonly used words in academic English.

But 'however' is just the cumbersome cousin of the delicious, nimble, and flexible 'but' (frequency in everyday language: 4400 per million). Look:

1) It's an ugly sentence, but it has a nice 'but.'

Sounds good, right? If you like your prose staccato, you could even use a period instead of a comma:

2) It's an ugly sentence. But it has a nice 'but.'

The difference in meaning (if any) between 1 and 2 is subtle, but my reading is something like this: In 1, the nice 'but' makes the sentence less ugly; it almost says: The sentence would have been ugly, if it weren't for its nice 'but.' But in 2, the ugliness and nice 'but' of the sentence are two cold facts; an ugly sentence is an ugly sentence is an ugly sentence—nice 'but' or no.

You could even use neither a comma nor a period, in which case the meaning is the same as 1, but it sounds a bit more rushed (which is ok in a short sentence):

3) It's an ugly sentence but it has a nice 'but.'

Or you could use a semicolon, in which case the meaning is somewhere in between 1 and 2:

4) It's an ugly sentence; but it has a nice 'but.'

So much flexibility! It's almost indecent. But let's now try it with the cumbersome 'however:'

5) It's an ugly sentence. However, it has a nice 'but.'

Sounds bad, doesn't it? Too emphatic, too in-your-face. It almost says: It's an ugly sentence, but … and now wait for it, because I'm going to tell you something that will completely change everything I told you before; are you ready? Here we go: It has a nice 'but!'

Using a semicolon makes it slightly less emphatic:

6) It's an ugly sentence; however, it has a nice 'but.'

But that's about as smooth as it gets.

And that, I think, is why 'however' isn't used much in everyday language. Normal people save it for special occasions that require something stronger than 'but.' However, academics use 'however' all the time; they probably feel that it makes them sound more academic.

So let's just stop doing that, shall we? Roughly 100 'but's for every 'however' is healthy. And if your but-to-however ratio is much lower than that, then you may be writing academese, and it may be good to change a few 'however's to 'but's.

A similar point could be made about 'also' (200 per million) and its cumbersome cousins 'in addition' (8 per million) and 'furthermore' (3 per million), and about 'so' (4200 per million) and its cumbersome cousins 'consequently' (1 per million), 'therefore' (21 per million), 'thus' (12 per million), and—god forbid—'thusly' (0.2 per million). But that's a rant for another day.