Using the word ‘but’: a brief guide to sincerity & clarity

Let’s talk about but. (I’m not referring to the word ‘butt’ here, ’cause butts are great.) ‘But’ seems like such an insignificant word. Only three letters. Just a conjunction. What harm can it do?

‘But’ is a conjunction used to introduce something contrasting with what has already been mentioned. This is fine, except when ‘but’ is used in complex situations where communication is sensitive. For example: in apologies, critique, and other nuanced personal communication.

Using the word ‘but’ in the middle of a sentence can negate everything that came before it. With the many different and colloquial ways to use ‘but,’ it takes diligence to make sure communication is clear. Here I want to focus on the use of ‘but’ when communicating with others.

Knowing the nuances of the word ‘but’ and being conscious of how you use it will make your communication more clear and sincere. Knowing how ‘but’ can used will also help you spot an insincere apology or contradictory statement quickly.

Examples of totally acceptable uses of the word ‘but’:

  • I’m free every day but Monday. (I think it would sound better with ‘except’)
  • He’s rich, but he’s not happy.
  • I can afford one, but not both. (also OK to just leave out the word ‘but’ in this case)
  • Tom isn’t here, but Mary is.

You get the picture.

Now let’s examine some not-so-great uses of the word ‘but’ with some common examples:

Breakups

“I love you, but I can’t be with you.”

Classic line! Girl, no, you don’t love him. If you loved him, you would be with him. What she’s trying to do here is soften the blow. In this situation, both statements are assumed to be true by both parties. This leaves a lot of ambiguity. As an exercise, replace the word ‘but’ with ‘and’ then re-evaluate the meaning of the statement.

“I love you and I can’t be with you”

Now we’re getting somewhere. By using ‘and’ instead of ‘but,’ the first clause of the sentence isn’t minimized. Both clauses are equal in value. The speaker is now being more clear. Perhaps when these clauses are equal in value, the statement doesn’t really convey what she wants to her loser boyfriend. Maybe by using ‘and,’ the ‘I love you’ is too meaningful.

“I used to love you, and now I don’t. I can’t be with you anymore.”

Much better. She figured out that, when she didn’t minimize the ‘I love you’ with the ‘but,’ she wasn’t conveying the message she needed to. She felt the need to say it originally because some feelings still exist — because she used to love the person. But there is no need to say it now. Now, instead of sounding passive-aggressive and unsure, she sounds like a adult who is aware of her emotions, and who is respecting the person she is breaking up with. It may be harsh, it’s unambiguous. Each party knows where they stand.

Apologies

  • “I’m sorry you feel that way, but __________”
  • “I’m sorry for what I did, but _________”
  • “I’m sorry my words hurt you, but _________”

Heck no, they’re not actually sorry. In this ‘fill in the blank’ format, it is easy to see this. In the heat of the moment, it may not be so clear. No matter the situation, the word “but” negates the apology. What it actually says is:

“I’m saying sorry because it is socially required by me to do so but — deep down — I believe that I am correct and not in the wrong. Because I am human, I can’t keep myself from vocalizing my opinions even though it is unnecessary in this case.”

The best way to apologize is just to do it, and not follow it with anything. If you desperately feel the need to use a ‘but,’ trying saying the apology with an “and” instead. Then you’ll realize that you either a) sound ridiculous or b) help you to re-evaluate the situation and craft a more truthful apology.

Apologies that aren’t really apologies

Somehow, we’ve fallen into the habit of apologizing when apologies aren’t needed.

I’m sorry, but that’s not going to work.

Pointing out a fact doesn’t need to be an apology. For some reason, ‘I’m sorry’ is used as polite fluff to soften a negative statement. Find other polite fluff! Or don’t use any, and instead point out positive specifics and encourage finding another solution.

Sneaky Apologies

“If you were wounded by my observation/words about <thing they are apologizing for>, as <insert unnecessary detail about situation>, then I am sorry. However, I do believe that <insert grand statement about larger world issue present that supports their earlier hurtful words they are supposedly apologizing for>.”

This is just one fine example of a fancy version of the ‘but’ apology. This doozy combines an if/then statement and throws in a ‘however!’ It even adds a distracting sentence at the end. Fancy stuff. Recognize that this apology means nothing, and that the person who said it isn’t primarily interested in apologizing.

But I neeeeed to use ‘but’

OK: You have a situation in which you legitimately have a negative and a positive thing and to say, and those things are directly related to each other. Think about the order of your phrases. Using a positive phrase AFTER the ‘but’ is always better. For example:

  • That wasn’t the ideal outcome, but I know we’ll do better next time.
  • Working with the other team has been frustrating and difficult, but we are coming up with a better way for our teams to communicate and work together more smoothly.
  • I was totally out of my comfort zone but I also had a really good time.

Nobody’s Perfect

We all use ‘but’ incorrectly (including myself). It’s just part of being a flawed human. Even writing this article, I had to edit out many uses of the word ‘but’ and other unclear grammatical devices. Striving for clarity and sincerity especially in written and digital communication is so important, and a worthwhile (if often futile) pursuit. People will always be misunderstood. Sentiment and tone will always be misinterpreted. Doing the little things — like being more conscious of how words like ‘but’ are used — can only help.