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Your grammar questions answered: however and which vs that

By Mary Morel | December 2016

Punctuation with ‘however’

Question: I have a question relating to punctuation when the word ‘however’ is used in a sentence.

Workplace law requires hazardous risks to be eliminated, however, if it is not reasonably practicable, then the risks must be minimised.

Or

Workplace law requires hazardous risks to be eliminated, however if it is not reasonably practicable, then the risks must be minimised.

Which of the above is correct, or are they both OK to use?  Lately I’ve been seeing the use of the second style.

Answer: The ‘correct’ way is to use a semicolon before ‘however’ and a comma after it when it separates two independent clauses.

Workplace law requires hazardous risks to be eliminated; however, if it is not reasonably practicable, then the risks must be minimised.

The rationale is that ‘however’ when used to join two independent clauses is an adverbial conjunction (also known as a conjunctive adverb) rather than a conjunction.

However, I think so few people understand this rule that a new style is emerging.

The Macquarie Dictionary says: ‘There is evidence to show that there has been a further step in the process which has turned however in the sense of “but, nevertheless” into a conjunction, as in I thought he was coming, however he failed to arrive. The older generation may find that this use is contrary to what they were taught, but the younger generation is increasingly accepting of it.’

So if you forget the traditional rule, the second sentence you gave is in line with the Macquarie Dictionary advice.

I am still old-fashioned and use the semicolon and comma!

Which and that

This is an old perennial, but I was asked again recently at a training course.

The traditional rule is to use ‘which’ to add extra information that could be deleted and ‘that’ when the information is essential to the meaning of the sentence. You can sometimes delete ‘that’ without loss of meaning.

The book, which my son lent me, was riveting. (The extra information is between commas.)
The book was riveting. (The sentence makes sense without the extra information.)

I wore the dress that my aunt gave me.
I wore the dress my aunt gave me.

But it is not as simple as that. Today, many people use ‘which’ instead of ‘that’.

I wore the dress which my aunt gave me.

With ‘which’ and ‘that’ we’re talking about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, sometimes called defining and non-defining clauses. It may help to think of ‘which’ as describing and ‘that’ as defining. (Restrictive and defining clauses are essential for the meaning of a sentence, and non-restrictive and non-defining clauses are not essential for meaning.)

Occasionally, using the traditional rules adds clarity. The Australian Commonwealth Style manual gives this example.

‘The research findings that were likely to cause embarrassment were never circulated.
The research findings which were likely to cause embarrassment were never circulated.
The research findings, which were likely to cause embarrassment, were never circulated.’

It goes on to say: ‘The first example makes it clear that the research findings not circulated were the ones likely to cause embarrassment. In the third example, it is plain that none of the recommendations was circulated. The situation described in the middle example is ambiguous: were all of the findings withheld or just the embarrassing ones?’

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