Word Wise: Get Your But Out of There

Word Wise - Get Your But Out of ThereBut. However. Although. Do you ever use these words without contradicting anything? Sometimes I do, but I’ve come to see those instances as false buts.

Let me try that again. “But. However. Although. Do you ever use these words without contradicting anything? Sometimes I do. I’ve come to see those instances as false buts.” Taking out the but following “Sometimes I do” makes that statement more logical, clear, and accurate.

Alternatively, I could keep the but and bring out the latent contradiction: “But. However. Although. Do you ever use these words without contradicting anything? Sometimes I do. I wish that I didn’t, but I do.” This but earns its place, pitting action against desire.

It surprises me how often but fails to earn its place. Even in the best writing, but butts in where it serves no oppositional purpose. Here’s an example:

The biggest public clouds are believed to belong to Amazon Web Services, Microsoft’s Azure and Google’s Compute Engine. But there are many others. (“Technology, in Translation,” New York Times, June 12, 2014)

Here, the but implies a contradiction that doesn’t exist. This sentence’s two claims—one, that these public clouds are supposedly the biggest, and two, that many other public clouds exist—have no argument with each other. The but between these claims belies the lack of tension between them.

To make this passage about public clouds logical, you could take either of these actions: delete the but, or state the implied contradiction: “If you’ve never heard of any other public clouds, you might assume that there are only three. But there are many others.” Generally, an implied contradiction is implied for a reason: it goes without saying. I usually delete the but.

When I encounter a but, a however, or an although, I expect opposition. Contrariness. An about-face. A negation or an unnegation. A retraction, correction, or quibble. Beatrice on one side, Benedick on the other.

Notice the lack of adversarial spirit in these false-but examples:

a)  I am a coder; however, I also like to write. (adapted from a comment on the “Write the Docs PDX” Meetup site)

b)  Henry had amassed for the expedition potent supplies of mercury, laudanum, rhubarb, opium, columbo root, calomel, ipecac, lead, zinc, sulfate—some of which were … medically helpful, but all of which were lucrative. (Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things)

In these sentences, the but—by which unitalicized term I mean either the word but or some other word that serves the same function—adds unhelpful dissonance, friction in the machinery of logic. In fact, a person can code and write all day long without either activity detracting from the other. And the number of Henry’s items that had medicinal qualities has no bearing on the number that brought him profit. Example a and example b both benefit from removing the but, as follows:

a)  I am a coder; I also like to write.

b)  Some of these supplies were medically helpful. All were lucrative.

In each revised statement, as in reality, two truths sit peaceably side by side. The syntax here reinforces the logic, which is not contradictory but additive, cumulative. If you felt a need for a conjunction, you could go with and:

a)  I am a coder, and I like to write.

b)  Some of these supplies were medically helpful, and all were lucrative.

In the case of the coder who likes to write, you might defend the original however as a harbinger of surprise. Okay. You might also tell a friend, “I’m going to say boo now.” Where’s the fun in that?

Sometimes, you need to do more than remove the but or replace it with and; you need to expose the true logic. Consider this false but:

I could tell you it’s raining cats and dogs, but I’d be lying.

No contradiction here. Like most false-but constructions, this sentence contains a hidden contradiction:

I could tell you it’s raining cats and dogs, but [I won’t because then] I’d be lying.

Would it improve the sentence to unearth that contradiction by adding those bracketed words? No. How about removing the but?

I could tell you it’s raining cats and dogs. I’d be lying.

Closer. One step to go. After you remove a but, ask yourself this: what’s the relationship between the two unhooked parts (phrases, clauses, or paragraphs)? In this case, the relationship—the logic we’re looking to expose—is conditional. Here, the tie that binds is not contradiction, as the but faked us into thinking, but dependency. Contingency. An if-then relationship:

If I told you it was raining cats and dogs, I’d be lying.

When you rewrite the false-but statement this way, readers don’t have to decode the logic; you’ve done the work for them.

What other logic might you unearth when you scrutinize false buts? Here are the main types of logical relationships:

    • additive
    • comparative
    • temporal
    • causal
    • conditional
    • example

English provides us with many tools for expressing these relationships—tools like prepositions, conjunctions, and conjunctive adverbs. (For some examples, see “The Six Basic Logical Relationships in Language.”) Punctuation expresses relationship, too. You don’t have to think like a grammarian, though, to use these tools. Just ask, what does this have to do with that? Do I really want to park my but here?

chatbubble_but-nonetheless-stillFalse buts call little attention to themselves. They break no grammar rules except in the broadest sense of the terms grammar and rules. Few readers trip on them. Many English teachers and editors leave them unmarked. You might even justify those buts that hint at an unstated contradiction, as in my opening example, on the grounds that we talk this way and everyone knows what we mean.

Nonetheless (or but or still), for the discerning writer, false buts indicate opportunity. As Coleridge put it almost two hundred years ago, “A close reasoner and a good writer in general may be known by his pertinent use of connectives.”¹ So why not look for these sly, uncontradicting contradiction-indicating connectives in your writing? Whenever you come across a but of any kind, remove it. Is the result more logical? Clearer? More accurate? Does the voice emerge unscathed? If so, tell the but to butt out. No ifs or ands about it.


¹ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 15 May 1833, in 6 Complete Works 467 (W.G.T. Shedd ed., 1844). Source: Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day.

Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia has run a tech-writing business for ... a long time. The author of "Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)," she taught tech writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program. For more, see howtowriteeverything.com.

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