Get but out of your usage

Posted by Mike Kaaks

15 March 2013

Get the word "but" out of your life When I first started writing this blog in my head I thought the little epiphany I'd had was unique. But after a quick web search I found that whilst it might have been the first time I thought about the effect of the word "but" this way, the thought was far from original. It's been written about by many others. But as we each bring our own perspective, here's my take on it, my epiphany.The message in the words which come after "but" don't get to deliver their full intent. As I thought more about it I realised that it is not the only failing in using "but" as the word also wipes out the value of what was said up to the point of it's inclusion.

At the beginning of this year I wrote to a friend to ask her to be custodian of a commitment that I not use the word but for the entire year. I did this because of this epiphany, this realisation that whenever I used "but" the words following it didn't seem to deliver their message with the power I gave them in my mind. It seemed a case of say one thing mean another. A bit like opening some feedback with the line "with all due respect" You know how that one turns out! "But" is a very sneaky word because you think it's helping you connect two thoughts and yet all it does is diminish your message. My epiphany had been about its impact in terms of the words which come after but now I was seeing that it also impacts the worth of the first part of what I had written. There's only one way to deal with this problem - delete "but" from your usage.

On the subject of usage, i went to my copy of Fowler's (a wonderful tome for pedants like me who love written English to be the way it was taught to me, a tome which ironically wouldn't exist if language didn't shift). It was worth looking because I found some usage that I liked; when but is used as an adversative conjunction. Naughty but nice. That's ok. But when but comes to mean "except for" it moves to the dark side, rendering wasted all that went before, and diluting all that follows. I wanted to help you with the dishes but got sidetracked by my tax return. Yeah right! First part rendered irrelevant. I think you performed well on the project but you could have done better. Your listener only hears the second part, first part is lost. When "but" bobs up in feedback like this it is very unhelpful. You've just got to get out of using it.

It's not easy, so you have to practice seeing it coming. Practice being aware when sentences are forming that they are leading to "but", then re-phrase what you want to say. In writing its a bit easier, you can always backspace and start the sentence again, which I recommend you do.

With But:
I think you performed well on the project but you could have done better.

Without But:
You performed well on the project, delivering all your milestones. Your performance overall would have been better had you communicated achievement of those milestones to all stakeholders. Throw the word away - it's not helpful.