Why Does It Have to Be a “But”?


I just read an absolutely marvelous article: “Things I Learned in Therapy That I Still Use Every Day.”

Although the topic is anxiety, the author – Tom Vellner – offers practical suggestions that can help anyone manage the stresses and strains of everyday life.

Since this is a blog about writing, I’m going to change directions and talk about two writing ideas I found in Vellner’s article.

1.  You don’t need fancy words and elaborate sentences to impress your readers. I ran two paragraphs from Vellner’s article through a readability calculator. The average score was ninth grade.

And Vellner’s article is fun to read. Sentences are lively and natural:

If your mental health would benefit from saying no, say no. 

Moral of the story: Don’t believe everything you think.

2.  There’s no jargon.

3. The article makes an interesting observation about but. Vellner was telling his therapist that he had mixed feelings about moving in with his boyfriend:

I said something to her along the lines of: “I’m so glad I moved in with him, but I really miss having my own space, so, like, what gives? I thought this is what I wanted.” She asked me, “Why does it have to be a ‘but’?”

I don’t think she was issuing an injunction against but – it’s a useful word that I use all the time. What interests me is the hidden meaning she uncovered: but often implies a judgment or regret. Get rid of but, and you might be able to get rid of the judgment or regret as well.

My father was a loving man, but he had a drinking problem.

My father was a loving man, and he had a drinking problem.

As the postmoderns keep reminding us, words aren’t inert transmitters of meaning. They carry their own complexity, like a coiled spring that’s hidden from view.

I hope you’ll read Vellner’s article!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *