But not for me
January 23, 2019 10:27 PM   Subscribe

Help me stop using the conjunction ‘but’ so much. I overuse it in my writing and, more generally, I think I rely too much on sentences structured as:
[clause], [conjunction] [contrasting clause].
Does this come from a mode of thinking that I can try to change?

I notice this especially in comments I make on Metafilter, but it crops up a lot in my other writing too. It can be a useful rhetorical device, but it also sometimes comes across as trying too hard to account for multiple points of view on a topic. Mostly it just seems like ponderous, lazy writing.
posted by theory to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My suggestion is to replace 'but' with 'and,' so that the contrast isn't highlighted and doesn't seem so important. Then either delete the less important clause or fold it into the other very briefly, e.g. "It crops up in a lot of my writing. It often comes across as trying too hard to account for multiple points of view."
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:39 PM on January 23, 2019 [11 favorites]

I'll answer this from not so much of a grammar perspective as one of tone. I think I read somewhere that 'but' as a qualifier just feels crappy on the receiving end. The offered alternative was to replace it with 'and' instead. Totally changed my life. You'd be surprised how different the responses are.

"I'd love to go to your party but I have other plans." vs "I'd love to go to your party and I have other plans." The first one shuts the person down, the second allows the person to experience that both things are true and empathize with the conflict. I'm not sure if my explanation does it justice, and perhaps this perspective is not relevant to the type of writing you're referring to. I've found it filtering into more and more of my dialogue, verbal and written.
posted by funkiwan at 10:42 PM on January 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

To clarify, this is regarding only my writing -- mainly when analyzing, explaining, and describing things.
posted by theory at 11:05 PM on January 23, 2019

First sentence; however/regardless/nonetheless, second sentence are my fave fancified sentence, but replacements. You can make them less obvious by sneaking them in later in the sentence. First sentence; second sentence is yaddayadda regardless of something or other; third sentence was nonetheless blah blah.
posted by nicebookrack at 11:28 PM on January 23, 2019

I do the same thing and often to little use as people will focus on the point after the "but" and not that which comes before. If the goal is in making more forceful arguments, then just emphasizing the area of disagreement rather than trying to establish a basis of agreement first is easy enough. It just requires dropping the assenting portions and going straight to the point of contention.

If you do want to change your way of thinking then focusing more on either the area of agreement or disagreement alone should help get rid of the conflicting points of view or "wishy-washy" tone, if that's the issue. Trying to account for all possible view points in a single statement can be difficult to parse whereas summarizing the main issue first, then later coming back to address the ameliorating issues later if needed may read better.

If it is more tied to a desire to please multiple parties without wishing to be linked too strongly to one or the other side, then it may be more of an emotional issue, tied to not wanting to offend or potentially hurt another person by too strong a disagreement which would require a different solution, more along the lines of accepting you can't please everyone and your thoughts can still be expressed in a generous manner acknowledging the question isn't one of absolutes.

(I'm personally not convinced that removing "buts" is better way to proceed as it can mean reinforcing a more diametric mode of engagement which has its costs even if the expression is clearer. There is at least potentially useful purpose to expressing understanding of complexity in better drawing out differences while still accepting larger premises.)
posted by gusottertrout at 11:31 PM on January 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

"It crops up a lot in my writing, especially in comments I make on Metafilter."
"It crops up a lot in my writing and is especially noticeable in comments I make on Metafilter."
"It crops up a lot in my writing; I notice it especially in comments I make on Metafilter."
"While it can be a useful rhetorical device, sometimes it also comes across as trying too hard etc."
"At times a useful rhetorical device, it can also come across as trying too hard etc."
"Sometimes it's a useful rhetorical device. Sometimes it comes across as trying too hard to account for multiple points of view on a topic. Too often it just seems like ponderous, lazy writing."
posted by nicebookrack at 11:39 PM on January 23, 2019 [15 favorites]

I notice this especially in comments I make on Metafilter, but it crops up a lot in my other writing too.
I've noticed this in a lot of my writing, especially Metafilter comments.
I find myself relying too much on this sentence structure, particularly in Metafilter comments.

So the idea: vary your sentence structure by putting the second part earlier. You might find you don't need "but."

It can be a useful rhetorical device, but it also sometimes comes across as trying too hard to account for multiple points of view on a topic.
While it can be a useful rhetorical device, it also might come across as trying too hard...

So the idea: Introduce the doubting part earlier.

Do a Ctrl-F search for "but" in your comments to help you break the habit.

Then again, parallelism in sentence structure isn't terrible.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:04 AM on January 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

You could take an approach like the apocryphal tough-love father who found his kid smoking and forced the kid to smoke the entire pack of cigarettes at once... force yourself to even more massively over-use it to the point that the trauma of acute agonising embarrassment induces A Clockwork Orange reflex against ever using it at all. A bit of the old grammatical ultraviolence, my droogy droog.
posted by XMLicious at 3:46 AM on January 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Does this come from a mode of thinking that I can try to change?

As others have given very helpful stylistic advice already, with great examples, I'll approach the thinking part you ask about. The two examples you give are slightly different kinds of thoughts. In the first example, (I notice this especially in comments I make on Metafilter, but it crops up a lot in my other writing too, ) "but" is not really a contrast or contradiction but a qualifier, a way that you're making the sentence not contrasting but more specific. So the deeper thought behind "but" here isn't really about metafilter vs. other writing venues; rather the thought is about the ubiquity of your use of "but" with metafilter being the heaviest place of use. So with this in mind, you can write that sentence in lots of different ways that don't at all set up a contrast bw metafilter and "other places," -- not using either" but," "although, "however," or any kind of contrast. For instance, "Out of all the places I overuse the word, I notice I do it most on metafilter." Not a great sentence but just a quick way of reforming the thought.
SO, I would advise when editing for this: Don't simply vary the style into a few alternate forms of contrast. This, too, can feel repetitive to a reader. Instead, ask whether you're really using "but" as a synonym for "However" on a deeper level and if not, change the whole thing.
posted by nantucket at 5:12 AM on January 24, 2019

When I see a lot of "but"s in writing, it often has the feel of stream-of-consciousness writing, rather than an edited/polished piece.

It's a habit now, so searching for it in your writing and using some of the alternatives - as well as developing your own - will give you practice varying your sentence structure. Over time, your growing awareness will create new and different habits, so you use that construction less often and more intentionally.
posted by dancing leaves at 5:29 AM on January 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Play with sentence structure. Especially note the ways that you begin sentences. While it’s very easy to make (noun)(verb)(adjective)(noun) clauses, it’s more fulfilling to write slightly more complicated patterns which may get your point across in fewer words.

Alternative things to start sentences with:

Verb or gerund (overusing the word ‘but’ is negatively impacting my message)
Time indicator (when I include unnecessary transitions...) or (when unnecessary transitions remain in writing...)
Preposition (as I alter my sentence structure...) or (under pressure to use varied sentence structure...)

I’ve found that starting my sentences with the pronoun “I” may make me more likely to heavily qualify my written statements, even in other sentences. Ha. May. I just did it. And then there’s but. For some reason, the self is more doubtable, or requires more defending, which can read as hedging or uncertainty.

So think about subject as well as initiation. It’s perfectly ok to write about yourself, so you can work to firmly locate your ideas, beliefs, needs, whatever you’re advocating for. Get really really clear on exactly what you’re trying to convey, find the evidence that supports that. Sure, address potential counter arguments if necessary. But only if necessary.
posted by bilabial at 6:16 AM on January 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Do you review and edit your work? If so, build into that process a search for the word 'but' so you can find all examples and see if there are any that lend themselves to change.

That said, I think simple words like 'but' are sometimes better left in, as they're relatively invisible, rather than constantly swapping in more elaborate and obvious alternatives like however, on the other hand, nonetheless etc.

When you train as a journalist, you learn that one of the tells of an amateur writer is someone who goes out of their way to avoid using the word 'said' every time someone speaks - he stated, he added etc. If you just use the word said, it's so small and functional that nobody notices it: It does its job so efficiently that people are unaware it's been used 10 times in one article. I feel like this might be the same.
posted by penguin pie at 6:17 AM on January 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

It can be a useful rhetorical device, but it also sometimes comes across as trying too hard to account for multiple points of view on a topic.

Here, you could eliminate the first clause. Everyone knows it's a useful rhetorical device although-- as you suggest-- it's often a habit that goes unquestioned to frame things in terms of "on the one hand this; on the other hand that." If you don't eliminate, you could try re-phrasing: "While it can be a useful rhetorical device..." to avoid the lulling effect of using a structure over and over. You could also check every time you are using "but" and see if something different like "both/and" or "not only, but also" is closer to what you really mean.

If you do eliminate the the first clause, you might also restate the second to, "Using this construction too much comes across..." Because you're right; if you keep using a construction over and over, it may look like you are relying on certain habits of thought or argumentation too much. The problem comes not when you use it any one place, but when it becomes a crutch.
posted by BibiRose at 6:33 AM on January 24, 2019

It's unclear whether you're looking for ways to restructure your writing, or drop-in replacements for "but" that will make it less repetitive. People are mostly hitting the former, so as for the latter:

A, but B.
A. However, B.
A. Still, B.
A. Nevertheless, B.
Although A, B
A, although B.
A. Now, admittedly, B...
While A, B.
A, while B.
Despite A, B.
A, despite B.
A. On the other hand, B.
A, with the caveat that B.
A. In contrast, B.
A. Surprisingly/unexpectedly, B.

Some of these can also be used while switching the conjuncts around. "We went to the store but we didn't buy anything" can be "We went to the store, although we didn't buy anything" or "We didn't buy anything, although we went to the store," depending on what you want to emphasize.

In most situations, only a few of these will work. That is because "but" covers a lot of ground, and most of these replacements cover only a small fraction of the ground. This property is what makes them useful, though: because they cover less ground than "but," they are more specific, and make it more precise what logical relationship between clauses you have in mind.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:37 AM on January 24, 2019 [8 favorites]

Do you review and edit your work? If so, build into that process a search for the word 'but' so you can find all examples and see if there are any that lend themselves to change.

Yeah maybe don't bother trying to keep stuff like this out of your first draft; that can slow you down way too much. A lot of writers I know have a list of things to search for in subsequent drafts.
posted by BibiRose at 6:42 AM on January 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

For whatever it's worth, I have never found myself thinking, "This person is a decent writer [or speaker], but they do seem to use the word 'but' too much". I don't have a problem with "but". It's a perfectly good word that serves a useful purpose.

This issue reminds me of other questionable rules for writing, such as the advice to avoid adverbs.
posted by alex1965 at 7:13 AM on January 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

I recognize your desire to change this habit. When I find myself doing this (and the word "but" vs "however" or another synonym doesn't matter so much as the structure), it sometimes comes from a lack of confidence in what I'm saying in the second half of the statement. It's similar to the way I will add lots of "I think" and "in my opinion" or "somewhat" or "likely" words/phrases in my writing - it softens a declarative statement, and as a woman it is socialized into me to not be too assertive. The sentences you describe preemptively make it clear that you see multiple sides of an issue, and that may come from a desire to avoid conflict or disagreement.

There's nothing wrong with sentences written this way in terms of style or grammar, to be clear! But if you find the root of your writing style comes from discomfort or lack of confidence in making statements, you could examine that and make an effort to be more assertive in the right circumstances.
posted by misskaz at 7:50 AM on January 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think I have your problem too.

Try writing simple sentences as much as possible. Trust the magic in the reader's brain to put them in proper relationships.

I rarely remember to write that way myself, but that's because I enjoy writing hard-to-read piles of crap.
posted by fleacircus at 8:51 AM on January 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it can very much be a confidence problem (or read like a confidence problem, anyway.) "This, but that" weakens both halves. If what you really want to say is "that" rather than a thesis statement that you'll be comparing and contrasting "this" and "that", you almost never need both halves. When you find it in your writing, try eliminating one clause and see if the remainder says what you actually mean.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:51 PM on January 24, 2019

Take an Improv class and learn "Yes and ..."
posted by falsedmitri at 6:23 PM on January 24, 2019

Don't overthink it.
"This... but that." is a simple, straightforward sentence structure. The reader understands it. The goal is clarity, not making an 18th century Gothic novel.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. But convoluted writing is an acquired taste.

“I come," replied he, "to thee, Manfred, usurper of the principality of Otranto, from the renowned and invincible Knight, the Knight of the Gigantic Sabre: in the name of his Lord, Frederic, Marquis of Vicenza, he demands the Lady Isabella, daughter of that Prince, whom thou hast basely and traitorously got into thy power, by bribing her false guardians during his absence; and he requires thee to resign the principality of Otranto, which thou hast usurped from the said Lord Frederic, the nearest of blood to the last rightful Lord, Alfonso the Good. If thou dost not instantly comply with these just demands, he defies thee to single combat to the last extremity.”
― Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto
posted by TrishaU at 1:53 AM on January 25, 2019

In grad school I read several bits of writing advice along the lines of "try to avoid conjunctions and commas." It was largely directed at something I now call "sentence creep." There's a tendency, particularly in academic writing, to string together clauses that might be better left . . . unstrung.

Although it seemed overly terse at first, I've come to appreciate that it's less a rejection of complex sentences than a reminder that they're rarely necessary.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:11 AM on January 25, 2019

Seconding Wobbuffet and misskaz, you have to carefully consider not just the word, but rather the meaning you're going for.

"But" indicates that there is some kind of contradiction between your first clause and your second clause. A careful reader will actively consider, while reading, whether your use of "but" makes sense. So, it's not the sound or flow or brevity of "but" that matters. Its meaning is what matters.

"She believes the Earth is flat, but I disagree" is fine. The "but" elegantly expresses that my belief contradicts hers.

"I've been tired for a week, but I'm going to rest up tonight" is the kind of thing you should watch out for.

There's no contradiction between having been tired, and planning to get some rest. In fact, they are both emphatically true. This use of "but" indicates that your plan to get some rest somehow contradicts your current tired state, or vice versa. The careful reader will notice that you've said something illogical without meaning to.

Some of the synonyms others have suggested, like "nevertheless," don't solve this problem. They're just fancier versions of "but." The sentence "I've been tired for a week; nevertheless, I'm going to rest up tonight" would mean, again, that your plan to get some rest is surprising or remarkable in view of your tiredness, which is absurd.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:37 AM on January 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

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