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”.
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.
To 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.
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.
“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”.
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!