Use while, which, however, this, it is, there is with caution
Problems arise when writers overuse or misuse while, which, however, this, it is and there is. These words per se are not a problem – it’s just how they are used or overused.
If you’re a person who overuses any of these words, I suggest you ban them from your vocab for a month and then re-introduce them more judiciously.
When you use while at the beginning of a sentence, you’re delegating your main point to the end of the sentence. If this is intentional and it works, great, but if you’re writing like this out of habit and detracting from your main point, not so great.
While there is now counsellor support, recruitment of volunteers for the trial has not met expectations.
The recruitment of volunteers for the trial has not met expectations even though counsellor support is now available.
NB There is no difference in meaning between while and whilst. Read what Michael Quinion has to say about while vs whilst.
Which is a useful word, but it can lead to overloaded sentences.
Take this example from an article in The Australian Financial Review during the global financial crisis.
For example, the conversion of former US investment banking giants Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley into commercial banks (which have tougher capital requirements) had the unintended consequence of squeezing funding to hedge funds – which in turn has exacerbated their dumping of assets across world markets.
Broken up, that sentence could read:
Commercial banks have tougher capital requirements than investment banks. Converting investment banking giants Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley into commercial banks had the unintended consequence of squeezing funding to hedge funds. This exacerbated the dumping of assets across world markets.
Read my post about which vs that if you’re not sure of the difference between these words.
However is a useful word; however, it is often overused and incorrectly punctuated. Some people cling to an old-fashioned view that you can’t use it at the beginning of a sentence, but you can. (Read my post on however.)
The correct punctuation when you join two independent clauses with however is to put a semicolon before it and a comma after it. This is because it is an adverbial conjunct (an adverb acting as a conjunction).
The weather forecast was for thunderstorms; however, we were determined to walk the track.
If you find it hard to use however sparingly, some synonyms are:
- On the other hand
- But (And yes, you can start a sentence with ‘But’)
- In contrast/comparison
This can cause problems when it’s overused or it’s not clear what it refers back to. It’s sometimes called the ‘slippery this’. Similar disconnects can happen with other pronouns such as It and They.
The following example is by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston.
When I wrote the report, I was not aware the driver had left the scene of a serious accident. This has created an unfortunate situation.
What’s created the unfortunate situation – the writer’s lack of awareness or the driver’s behaviour?
It is, There is
Sentences that begin with It is and There is (and variants, e.g. It was, There are) are known as expletive sentences. These phrases are also sometimes called false or filler subjects because they are not the real subject of the sentence.
Problems can arise with these phrases in business writing if they make your writing waffly.
When you come across an expletive sentence, re-assess it and see if it would be better re-worded with a real subject at the beginning.
It is difficult to capture results in the time available, which makes modelling approaches necessary.
Modelling approaches are necessary because results are difficult to capture in the time available.
It was the view of this group that the changes would only apply to two structures at this stage.
The group decided that the changes would only apply to two structures at this stage.
There are a number of reasons why this project failed.
The project failed because…
In the hands of good writers, expletive sentences can be wonderful.
‘It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.’
Toni Morrison, Sula
There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Learn more about grammar
Learn more about writing and grammar with my online Writing and Grammar Bundle.
And subscribe to my monthly e-newsletter to receive writing and grammar tips.