“But” Is a Dangerous Word

If you visit my blog often, you know that I’m very interested in the deeper workings of language – the postmodern idea that language has a life and a mind of its own that often escapes our awareness and control. Today’s topic is some issues that might surprise you in sentences with but.

I came across a question on Quora last week that reminded me – once again – about the mysteries embedded within this tool that so many of us take for granted.

The question concerned a sentence that started like this: I’m a dedicated teacher, but….

Red flags immediately went up. (More accurately, I heard emergency sirens in my head.) But is one of the most powerful words in the English language – and one of the most dangerous.

The language philosopher Jacques Derrida talks about words that are “under erasure” – even though they’re right on the page, or they’ve just come out of our mouths, they don’t exist anymore. We’ve taken away their meaning.

Using but is one of the ways you might – without realizing it – put something you’ve said or written “under erasure.” This is not just some crazy idea that Derrida came up with when he had too much time on his hands. Psychologists have long warned their clients about the landmines hidden in this innocent-looking word. (Anne Wilson Schaef is one psychologist who is very wary of but. She tells her clients to use and instead.)

Well, I use but every day. I don’t think you have to take it out of the dictionary! And yes, I start sentences with but all the time. (Every professional writer going back at least to Shakespeare’s day does the same thing.) Here’s the thing, though – I use but carefully.

But erases what goes before it. Read these sentences, and you’ll see what I mean:

I trust Abigail, but sometimes she doesn’t tell the truth.

The weather report predicted rain, but I’m seeing blue skies.

I enjoyed my graduate program, but I can’t wait to finish.

Suddenly it sounds like you don’t trust Abigail, you don’t think it’s going to rain, and you didn’t really enjoy your graduate program.

Those sentences have lost some of their power because but weakens what went before. That subtle truth is really apparent in the partial sentence I put at the beginning of today’s post:

I’m a dedicated teacher, but….

No matter what you put after but (“I don’t think I should have to do bus duty,” “there’s too much unnecessary paperwork,” “I can’t meet everyone’s needs when there are 40 kids in my class”), the sentence loses some of its punch. She doesn’t sound quite as dedicated as she claims to be.

I told the beleaguered teacher on Quora to substitute and for but. Amazing: suddenly the sentence gets bigger and stronger!

I’m a dedicated teacher, and I don’t think I should have to do bus duty.

I’m a dedicated teacher, and there’s too much unnecessary paperwork.

I’m a dedicated teacher, and I can’t meet everyone’s needs when there are 40 kids in my class.

Here’s one more thing to think about: but is especially dangerous when you’re trying to come up with a thesis for an essay or report. Suddenly you have two main ideas, not just one, and you’ve lost your direction before you even start. It’s sort of like seeing a road veer off in two directions – and trying to drive down both of them.

Immigration is a serious problem in our country, but we need immigration labor to supplement our workforce.  TWO OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS

Moral: go ahead and use but whenever you like – but think carefully first. The sentence you save might be your own.

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8 thoughts on ““But” Is a Dangerous Word

  1. Darrell Turner

    This is a fascinating post, Jean. I was surprised to learn recently that the word “but” negates everything that came before it in the mind of a listener or reader. I had thought that it could be used to show that I approve something or agree with something with qualifications.

    In writing, do you think this can be done more effectively by following a positive sentence with one beginning with “however”? Using this approach, your example sentence about immigration could be divided into two sentences this way: “Immigration is a serious problem in our country. However, we need immigrant labor to supplement our workforce.”

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Darrell! You’re right that “but” means to agree with something with qualifications. As I said, I use “but” all the time. But (ha!) I think the psychologists have a point. A great example of its negating power is a sentence that begins like this: “I love you but….” The “but” completely erases any possibility that the speaker really loves you.

    I think your “however” suggestion might indeed be a solution. Now it looks as if the “supplement our workforce” idea is going to be the main idea of the paper.

    What I would suggest to a student trying to write this paper is the word although: “Although immigration is a seriously problem in our country, we need immigrant labor to supplement our workforce.” Now it’s absolutely clear which idea is dominant. We no longer have the situation where the two ideas are equal, and each cancels the other.

    Always great to hear from you, Darrell – thanks!

  3. Darrell Turner

    Jean, thanks for the suggestion about starting a sentence with “although.” This discussion comes at a good time for me as I am teaching a class of ESL students how to write persuasive essays.

  4. Jenna

    Great post, Jean.
    It reminds me of several scenes in the movies, where a character says something, and then the other character looks at them and says, “But…?”

    I am not conveying this well in writing and cannot think of a good example from film off the top of my head, but the tone in which the first character says something, automatically implies a negation or qualifier, leading the other character to say,”But…?” Maybe when we are writing ourselves, we don’t hear that in our minds.

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