Words We’re Scared To Use: But, but, but…

The first in an occasional series about words that people are wary of using…

1. But me some buts!

For me, one of the best lessons in editing came from reading out essays during college tutorials. Bleary with sleeplessness yet strung out with the gallon of coffee that had sustained me, I’d stammer out the results of my night’s scribbling as my tutor listened with malignant intent. Invariably, I’d notice that my treatise on the Goths or the Huns was plagued by the repetition of certain words.

Top of the list was “however”. Every time I wanted to make a contrast, I’d start a sentence with “however”. Invariably, these ended up closer together than I’d imagined: it was all a bit much. So, as I read, I’d improvise – burying the word deeper in the sentence, leaving it out altogether or being bolder and replacing it with “but” (which usually sounded better).

but copylab conjunctions

My reluctance to use “but” to begin with was probably down to my primary schooling; the teachers often told us not to start sentences with “but” and “and”. The practice must have been widespread, as great swathes of the population seem to have taken it to heart (judging by the reactions I’ve had from various marketing departments down the years).

“But” is a coordinating conjunction (along with “for”, “and”, “or”, “yet” and “so”). As such, its main function is to join two elements – words, phrases, clauses or sentences – of equal value. But it also has a special power of its own: it downplays the words that have come before it. Most writers know this instinctively. If you have both bad and good news to deliver, you can put the emphasis on the latter by putting it after a “but”:

“Your investments declined in December, but they did well over 2014 as a whole.”

Flip that sentence round, and the same facts become much less palatable:

“Your investments did well over 2014 as a whole, but they declined in December.”

copylab but however blog

If you use the word to start a sentence, you magnify the effect, by making the contrast all the more abrupt. That wouldn’t do in the examples above (it would be protesting too much!). But it can be very useful when you want to reinforce your point. In the same way, if you start a sentence with “and”, you draw attention to the compounding effect of whatever you’re saying, as you pile one thing upon another.

These are useful tools for writers. So why are so many people suspicious of “but” and “and” at the start of sentences? And why do their fellow coordinating conjunctions – “for,” “yet”, “nor” and “so” draw far less ire?

The proscription seems to be a fussy 19th-century thing. Certain Victorians objected to this rhetorical tool, and the objection has lingered in the hearts of pedants ever since. But there’s no good reason for it. Using coordinating conjunctions to open sentences is virtually as old as English itself (the Beowulf poet starts sentences with ac, which translates as either “but” or “for”) and is employed by just about every writer one might look to as a model. If you’re sharing your usage with the King James Bible as well as Shakespeare, Hemingway and Orwell, then you’re in decent company.

That’s a reason for rejecting opposition to “but” at the start of a sentence. But there are also very good grounds for embracing “but”. As in my old college essays, there’s a creeping tendency to overuse “however” where “but” would be better. It’s a trend that should be resisted. For one thing, “but” and “however” aren’t exact synonyms. They have different grammatical functions and require different punctuation; if you use “however” to open a sentence with a contrast, it needs to be followed by a comma, to prevent your readers understanding it as “in whatever way” rather than “nevertheless”. They carry slightly different connotations too, as the New Yorker writer St Clair McKelway observed, in objecting to his editor’s habit of replacing “but” with “however”:

“However” indicates a philosophical sigh; “but” presents an insuperable obstacle.

There is also a supposed proscription on using “however” at the start of sentences – Strunk and White (ever entertaining, often wrong) object to it in The Elements of Style. That need not detain us. But we should worry about the drab, gutless “howevers” that replace sharp, punchy “buts”.

We should also be concerned by one of the great blights of corporate prose, arising, I am quite certain, from the misplaced belief that “however” is more correct than “but” in any context: the “however” run-on sentence. Time and again, the corporate editor must confront horrors such as “We have delivered real improvements in these areas, however there is still work to be done”. It results from the dreadful combination of a “find and replace” mentality with a hypercorrect antipathy to “but”. And it leads to awful, whiplash-inducing attempts at sentences, in which it is often unclear what role “however” is meant to play. Look at the difference between these sentences:

“We could not win, however we tried.”

“We could not win; however, we tried.”

“We could not win, but we tried.”

“We could not win. But we tried.”

The first tells us merely that defeat was inevitable; the second tells us that an attempt was made. The third and fourth convey the same information as the second, but in different tones (the fourth sounds the most dogged).

In being unafraid to use “but” wherever it seems appropriate, then, we’re upholding a centuries-old tradition of proper English usage, thumbing our noses at Victorian prescriptivists and combating a contemporary pestilence of hypercorrection. Those all seem pretty good reasons to me. Of course, the evils of the run-on sentence or “comma splice” go deeper than the all-too-common “however” variant. But that’s another story.