‘But’ watch

The English language at its finest

As you may know, one of the bees in my bonnet is the way we use our “buts.” I maintain that many of us use our “buts” mindlessly and poorly. If you doubt the justice and righteousness of my crusade to expose sloppy “buts,” read on.a

The problem I’ve had in writing about my “but” findings is not having any evidence. I’d see bad “buts” all over the place when I’d forgotten my recorder and had nothing to write with, and since my memory is mostly a memory now, all those bad “buts” faded out of my brain. Now I try always to have a memory aid with me, electronic or pencil-and-paper. Not only that, I’ve expanded to include “yet.” Prepare to be shocked.

First, from The New Yorker, Aug. 2, 2010, “… his big but elegantly arranged features …” I see no reason to expect big features not to be elegantly arranged, so “but” makes no sense. I suppose if the features were big enough, fewer arrangements would be possible with the available space, perhaps precluding elegance, but I doubt it.

From Practicing the Power of Now, by Eckart Tolle, “… a silent but powerful sense of presence.” I can understand associating noise with power, but Tolle of all people knows better, and so should his editor.

Also from The New Yorker, July 26, 2010, “A restless but cheerful boy …” I see no reason to think that good cheer and restlessness are seldom found in the same person, even a boy.

From Harper’s, April 2011, “… to care for his cherished but dying wife.” A skillful, erudite writer, Lewis Lapham wrote this nonsensical phrase. Everybody needs an editor.

From various sources I didn’t write down: “embittered yet talented”—two unrelated characteristics, although talented people may well become embittered. “Boisterous, yet talented”—ditto. “… An intensely traditional but complex man”—traditional doesn’t imply simple. “A brilliant but eccentric folk painter”—the writer obviously doesn’t know any artists. Brilliance is always eccentric, away from the center. “Their delicate, but delicious, flavor”—delicate flavors are usually delicious. “Known for being loving, yet direct with a sense of humor”—I don’t expect loving people to be roundabout or humorless, and I bet the writer doesn’t either. “The full story … is lengthy but fascinating”—“but” makes a little sense if I think of length as bad and fascination as good, but I don’t. “A simple but powerful model for leadership”—a powerful model for anything is simple.

As part of a movement for verbal clarity as a way to achieve justice and peace for all, let’s all watch our buts. Give “and” a chance.