Taking the ‘buts’ out of ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’

Editor’s note: Anthony’s taking the week off, so we’re re-running this column from 2006.

Language can drive you crazy, if you let it. I know I’m a little peculiar when it comes to words, and I try to be broad-minded and open when it comes to bad diction and sloppy usage. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes not.

For example, I look at “but” with a critical eye. I tend to look at language generally with a critical eye, and I’m especially interested in “but” and other words that set up contrasts, like “although” and “however.” My objection is that the contrasts are usually misleading and often false.

“But” is especially insidious. One of the most common misuses of “but” is in phrases like “poor but happy,” which assumes that one wouldn’t ordinarily expect a poor person to be happy, that somehow poverty and happiness aren’t usually found together, and so the use of “but” is justified to highlight the contradiction inherent in any poor person’s happiness. Of course, “but” isn’t justified in this example, and perhaps not in most of the contexts in which it is found. Blond but smart, simple but beautiful, compassionate but conservative, dumb but educated

“But” is nearly always a poor choice when one is trying simply to impart information without a slant. Try this: Many students take that test, and some do well. Then: Many students take that test, but few do well. As a description of what happens with the test, both statements may be true, depending on how we define “few.” Let’s assume that they are true.

Those two sentences differ in essentially one way. The first sentence states more or less plainly what seems to happen. The second sentence puts a negative spin on the same phenomenon and serves perhaps to discourage prospective test takers about their prospects of excelling, solely as a result of the writer’s or speaker’s subtle assumption about that group of test takers.

As a parent, I’m curious about the ways our opinions and premises are affected by suggestions, and so I’m on a constant “but” watch.

I attend to commas, too, serial commas in particular. Serial commas are the ones before the final conjunction in a series—the Twin Cities, Berkeley, and Sacramento. In this instance, the serial comma is all that stands between the reader, namely you, and the erroneous notion that Berkeley and Sacramento are the Twin Cities referred to by the first item in the series.

The use of serial commas is fading fast in mass media, promoted primarily by the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, which should be ignored by anybody with a fondness for clarity. Popularity is not commensurate with quality. Thus we got VHS tapes, commercial television, and Microsoft.