This sentence makes sense, BUT…

I am reading a non-fiction book. Some of the sentences that the author writes make no sense to me. I have noticed several times that the author uses the words “but”, “however”, “yet”, and other conjunctions in ways that leave me scratching my neocortex.

The conjunction “and” is rather harmless. You could say:

“The pig is hungry and I will be home by 7:30pm”.

Admittedly, this is a strange sentence. But it doesn’t contradict itself. It’s just strange.

Now, what if I say:

“The pig is hungry but I will be home by 7:30pm.”

This has a different meaning. There is an implied contradiction or conflict between the two sides of the “but”.

but glue

But Glue

Imagine having a tube of “but glue” that you can use to attach separate statements or clauses. The statement above has two parts that were connected with but glue. The problem is that the second half of the sentence doesn’t contradict, correct, or oppose the first half of the sentence. Compare that with this statement:

“The jug is intended to store water, but you can fill it with apple juice”.

…which makes more sense.

200504238-001To be fair, it is possible that given a particular situation, the first sentence might make sense. Consider: “The pig is hungry and usually gets fed at 5:30pm, but she’ll be okay because I’ll be home by 7:30pm to feed her.”

If the reader were already familiar with the context, the backstory, and the implications, it might make sense.

But… out of context, it makes no sense.

Missing Context

Back to the book I mentioned earlier: the problem is that the author is not able to craft clear context for his general reader. The author frequently drills down into his smallish area of expertise, or his momentary logical twiddling, with its particular conflictual dynamics. There may be clashing assumptions or contradictions in his context, but he has not successfully expressed those opposing assumptions. Either he is too absorbed in his arcane world of logic, or he is just not that good at crafting an argument or illuminating new ways of thinking about a familiar subject.

Bad Buts

“But” can also be used to manipulate an argument to the benefit of the but-wielder. Beware of but’s that subtly change the subject, creating the false appearance of a contradiction…when there is none. 

A friend of mine was caught doing this. She may not even have been aware of it, but she evoked butness to apparently weaken my argument. I called her on it.

Another friend of of mine avoids glueing sentences together with “No…but”. She much prefers “Yes…and”.

No But Yes And

Attention to buts and ands amounts to more than just a nerdy obsession with grammar. It can illuminate large-scale philosophies on life, and the contradictions within it. Or the lack of contradictions.

Now…I am not an expert on grammar or good writing…

but there’s one thing I can say for sure:

this coffee sure smells good!


One thought on “This sentence makes sense, BUT…

  1. “But glue”, hehe….
    This reminds me of conversations I had with another blogger, whose apparent refusal to use buts where they would be expected was quite irritating. I think it was something he picked up at one of these personal development classes, where saying “but” might invite negative energy. And that’s very sweet.

    So, instead of something like, “It wasn’t A, but either B or C”, he’d have said, “It wasn’t A, and either B or C”. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but “but” gives a clearer sense of having discounted A.

    A weirder statement would be something like, “The hotel was great, and I wish the food were better.” He’d say stupid things like that all the time. Nothing wrong with the logic: two facts can be concatenated, as you say, harmlessly, with “and”. But “but” has the suggestion of “despite that”, or “on the contrary”, and to miss that out is ludicrous.

    Anyhoo, stranger would be to switch the other way: “The hotel was great, but it was one of the best I’ve ever stayed at.”

    On the other hand, you might use “but” for emphasis or comparison: “The hotel was great, but the food was superb.”

    What kinds of things does the author write?

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