The punctuation mistake you probably never knew you were making

Here’s insight into a little-known misstep that writers often make.


Here’s a grammar rule that’ll come as a big surprise to many of you: 95 percent of the time you should not put a comma before the word however.

Yep, you’ve been punctuating it wrong all these years. We know, because we see this mistake all the time. It’s probably the most common error we see.

Here’s an example of how not to punctuate when using however:

There’s usually no need to book a reservation, however please let us know in advance if you’re coming as part of a large group.

This sentence has what’s known in the grammar trade as a comma splice. And the comma splice is up there with the grocer’s (grocers’?) apostrophe as the grammar crime most likely to elicit tuts of derision from the punctuation-conscious reader.

To avoid being branded a comma splice criminal, you have three options.

1. Create two sentences

Your best option for punctuating the above sentence would be to break it into two sentences, using a full stop, a capital letter, and then a comma:

There’s usually no need to book a reservation. However, please let us know in advance if you’re coming as part of a large group.

Remember: Full stop. Cap. Comma.

2. Use but

You could also use but instead of however, with a preceding comma if it forms a compound sentence, as is the case here:

There’s usually no need to book a reservation, but please let us know in advance if you’re coming as part of a large group.

Ah, but didn’t someone once tell you to always use however instead of but because but is too negative?

Poppycock! Is the following use of but negative? I didn’t think I’d enjoy the play, but it was brilliant!

And does the however in this example make the blow any less crushing? We read your CV with great interest. However, we regret your application was unsuccessful.

The only thing more soul-destroying than that would be to receive a letter saying: We read your CV with great interest, however we regret your application was unsuccessful.

That sends this message: Yes, we’re illiterate, however we still don’t want you!

3. Use a semicolon

You could, of course, use a semicolon instead of a comma:

There’s usually no need to book a reservation; however, please let us know in advance if you’re coming as part of a large group.

But who wants to see a semicolon in business writing? Not this writer, for sure. They’re just a way to turn two short, punchy sentences into one longer, stuffier one.

Besides, if you haven’t got your head around comma splices, chances are good that your grasp of colons and semicolons is wobbly, too.

4. Reorder the sentence

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule that you should not put a comma before however. For example, if you give your however a different position in the sentence:

There’s usually no need to book a reservation. Please let us know, however, if you’re coming as part of a large group.

In this example, the however interrupts the statement: Please let us know if you’re coming as part of a large group.

It can be removed, and the sentence still would make sense. In such instances, you need a comma both before and after however.

Of course, there’s something a little more formal—academic almost—about this word order.

In a business context, it would probably be better to put your however at the start of the sentence.

In which case: Full stop. Cap. Comma.

Clare Lynch is chief business writer and trainer at Doris and Bertie, a U.K. communications agency that helps businesspeople ditch corporate-speak and talk like human beings. Follow her on Twitter @goodcopybadcopy.

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