When you say “but”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “but”. 

Sure, now you’re thinking, “Oh, here she goes…this is one of those ‘Kelli’s in her head again’ blogs.” 
Really? If you read this thing, you know that’s pretty much all it ever is.

Seriously though. As I recently said to someone, the three little letters in “but” can add up to something pretty significant. 

Before I go there, let’s first start by comparing “but” with “and”. Some of you will have gone through exercises at work or school that ask you to remove “but” from your vocabulary. The idea is – especially when brainstorming, creating, or designing – that “but” shuts down the flow of ideas and conversations. The phrase “yes, and” is meant to be better at building up and developing ideas. 

(I say “meant to be” because I don’t think this always works. Too often, I’ve seen people get in the habit of using the phrase insincerely, where “and” clearly means “and I disagree with you entirely.”)

In theory though, the word “and” can be more generative and productive. Sometimes, though, we’re not ready to be productive. Sometimes, we’re only ready to sit with our conflicting ideas and feelings. We might want to move forward AND toward something different, BUT we’re just not capable yet. (See what I did there?)

In those cases, what might it mean to think intentionally about how we order the two clauses separated by “but”? To me, the sequence matters quite a lot. Here are some examples:

  • Imagine talking to a grieving friend: “This is really hard, but you’ll get through it.”
  • Consider a relationship you’re working on: “I love you and want to be with you, but we’ve got so many hurdles in front of us.”
  • Or how about trying to address a bad habit? “I want to be healthier, but it’s so hard to change.”

Replacing “but” with “and” in these examples might function as an invitation to work on challenges together. If we’re not at that stage though, we should at least understand what’s implied by our “buts” and make sure they match what we mean. 

In the first example, leaving the sentence as-is might be understood by some as rushing a friend through grief. Reversing the order of the two thoughts, however, keeps the door open for an easier future, while also acknowledging that it’s normal to be sad. 

The second example sounds, to me, like someone getting ready to pack it in. But if we flip the order of the two clauses, we’re acknowledging the realities of a difficult situation, and still focusing on the love that can make difficulty worth the trouble.

The third sentence also sounds like giving up is a viable option. And again, switching the phrases suggests a need to be honest with ourselves, while pushing onward to better health. 

Why does any of this matter? 

Well, if we’re going to have conversations that help us meet in the middle, we can’t ignore the power that gets packed into little words. 

Imagine, for example, talking to someone about a political issue and being told, “I disagree with your side’s politics, but I can see your point on this” instead of the reverse. It might seem easier to move the conversation forward if we pause on a note of agreement.

If we’re going to remain open to possibilities or to doing our best with each other, I think we need to be aware of when our sentences might shut things down before we get started.

One thought on “When you say “but”

  1. I was once told, “everything before ‘but’ is bulls***”.

    And whilst not always correct, it’s a useful heuristic.

    Other words I and others should make an effort to reduce the frequency of, include “like”, “really” and (as a sentence commencer), “so”.


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