Sunday, September 18, 2011

But, but, but ...

I didn't think I was confused about the different uses of but and though, but after reading Allan Metcalf's little lesson -- the latest installment in the new Lingua Franca blog -- I'm not so sure. My problem cropped up at this point:
Here’s the distinction: What follows But is the author’s main point. What follows though is a subordinate point.
(a) I would follow you anywhere in the world you’d care to go. But I don’t trust you.
(b) I would follow you anywhere in the world you’d care to go, though I don’t trust you.
Clear enough? In (a), the author won’t be following, because the distrust is too much. In (b), the author distrusts but is going to follow anyhow.
"Clear enough?" Absolutely not. I have no idea why Metcalf believes that in example (a), the "But" expresses sufficient distrust to negate the preceding avowal. He seems to read it as meaning "I would follow you if I trusted you," but for me, the sentiment is the same in both versions: I would follow you anywhere, but (or though) not blindly. But maybe this is one of those distinctions I didn't learn young enough; is it one most people recognize?


Sara B said...

I've never thought about it, but I do see the distinction here (I read the two examples the way he explains them), and in thinking about examples I might say myself I used them the same way. I don't remember being taught the difference, I guess it's just learned from context.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if there's any case that wold be perfectly clear, but I interpret the two sentences like this:

(a) If I trusted you, I would follow you anywhere in the world you'd care to go. But I don't trust you, so I won't follow you.

(b) I would follow you anywhere in the world you'd care to go, even though I don't trust you.

Bryan White said...

I do get what he's saying, but I wonder if it's less a matter of clear cut meaning, and more just a matter of tone. Consider if I re-wrote the preceding sentence:

"I do get what he's saying, though I wonder if it's less a matter of meaning, and more just a matter of tone." The meaning doesn't seem to be greatly different. However, the objection feels more substantial in the original. In the rewritten version it feels like a side note, "subordinate" as Metcalf puts it. In both cases I'm agreeing with his basic argument, and in both cases I'm qualifying that agreement with the same reservations. These reservations just seem like less of an impediment in the rewritten version. They don't hold up the show. They're just dropped in and on file, and we keep moving along. Meanwhile, the original version seems to require follow-up and further elaboration. Like I said, though, this seems to be more a matter of tone than a clear cut distinction.

Carolyn Roosevelt said...

I'm inclined to agree with him. But I might make such a point more emphatic by starting the sentence, "However,...".

Kay L. Davies said...

I agree with Metcalf.
Maybe it's because the "But" sentiment follows a period, not a comma? Definitely a difference in how I perceive the two, although it might be my instinctive feeling. But then again, it might be a matter of usage, either taught or preferred, or both.
Which came first, the instinct to trust/distrust, or the usage of words?
Very interesting question you've posed here. This could keep grammarians and writers talking for a long time, because I don't think there's a hard and fast rule.
— K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

Vireya said...

I'm with you, Jan. I interpreted the first to mean that I will follow you, but I will be watching you like a hawk, because I don't trust you!

Anonymous said...

I also agree with Metcalf. Perhaps it helps to consider that "even" is understood before "though."

Even though I'm not often inclined to biblical quotations I will give one here. (Note this use of "even though" followed by my doing something)...

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil."

Again that "though" is followed by the action that was almost not done.

Jonathon said...

I'm with you, Jan. The examples seem contrived, and I'm not convinced they support Metcalf's point. And I don't get why he feels the need to expound on this point, either. He says that "in reading you automatically recognize the difference, whether you’re aware of it or not." So why tell us something we already know? Are a lot of people struggling with the difference between but and though?

Sean said...

I agree with Glen, I would be expecting more to the sentence. As a listener I would hear "But..." and would be expecting the speaker to negate the first part, "But because I don't trust you I won't". However, as it is stated, I would understand that I am to be followed on my global travels, even though I am not trusted. Actually, having heard that statement with but in it, I would probably ask, "so, are you coming or not?"

By the way, I can be trusted, unfortunately however, I can't afford to travel very far.

Dave bush said...

My take on it is to agree that neither but nor though are followed by a main point, they're both followed by a subordinate point.

But introduces a subordinate point that counts against the main idea, though introduces a subordinate point that counts towards the main idea.

As such, I find the second sentence difficult to understand.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like an invented distinction, created to differentiate between two essentially identical synonyms. I can get both meanings out of both sentences, depending on how they're spoken.

Frank Little said...

What has happened to although?

Bryan White said...

@Jonathon: " automatically recognize the difference, whether you’re aware of it or not." I missed this. Nice.

Informing the reader that they are being affected or driven to react to things that they might not be aware of is a common rhetorical trick, an appeal to the subconscious. I'm sure I've been guilty of it at times, and sometimes it's even appropriate. Sometimes, however, people take the idea too far, to the point of absurdity. This idea of "Well, your subconscious gets it." might be a handy way of disarming a reader's objections, but its latitude isn't unlimited. I'd like to see how someone can recognize something without being aware of it. Recognition, as I understand the word, requires awareness. As someone once said, "To know means to know that one one knows." If I say that I recognized Bill on the street, this means that there was a moment where I stopped and said, "Hey, there's Bill!" If that doesn't happen, then I can't imagine running into Bill later and having him tell me, "You recognized me on the street the other day, but you weren't aware of it, so you just kept going."

Jan said...

So interesting! Five of you (so far) say that a sentence like

"I would marry you, if you asked me to, but I don't trust you"

means "No, I won't marry you." Yes, that's what Metcalf says he thinks too. (The sentence is the same, no? It doesn't matter whether the "but" clause is a separate sentence. And no fair invoking "tone"; he says the meaning is clear in writing.)

It's not that I don't believe you; I know all the people who use "she may have died" mean exactly what I mean by "she might have died" (i.e., she didn't). But how fine can our fine distinctions usefully be, if half our audience doesn't share them?

The Ridger, FCD said...

I might get his meaning if the sentence were spoken, because intonation would help. But I don't get it from reading - the first example means I would follow but I won't trust while doing so.

To get his mean, I'd need "except that".

Richard Hershberger said...

Metcalf is committing a standard prescriptivist fallacy. The real distinction here is that "but" can be used both concessively and for contrastive negation. "Though" can only (so far as this topic applies) concessively. See Huddleston & Pullum chapter 8 section 13.3(b) for a discussion fully on point.

The prescriptivist mind has a reflexive reaction to such scenarios. If A can be used in either Y or Z, while B can only be used in Y, the prescriptivist reaction is to assert that A actually can only be used in Z, thereby establishing a fine distinction to be followed by the mythical "careful writer". Much nonsense we are routinely subjected to follows this scheme.

I don't know Metcalf's work. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that this was a momentary lapse, or the product of a bad day.

Jan said...

Richard, thanks for that crucial point. In fact, Arnold Zwicky made the same point in a blog post about "for" vs. "because," after I asked him about Ambrose Bierce's mystifying ruling on their use. See it at

Jan said...

Wait, that web address should have ended: "8/12/28/forbecause/"

Allan Metcalf said...

Perhaps if you don't like my made-up examples, you might consider the examples from Shakespeare and E.B. White in my post.

Jan said...

Allan, those examples don't help me with your sentence (a), where the "but" obviously means "however." (A perfectly normal sense, as Richard Hershberger points out in his comment.) In the Shakespeare, it's "adversative" "but" -- love does NOT X BUT Y. And the E.B. White is just confusing, since it starts with "But although." The "But" is in contrast with the previous sentence (and seems like another "but"="however" to me), so what you say about the sentence seems true, but not relevant to the use of "But" at all.

Lauren @ Pure Text said...

Honestly, I read the sentence as you did: "I'll follow you, but I'm keeping my eyes peeled."

As another commenter stated, though, if the period *were* a comma, I'd have read it as, "I would follow, but I'm not going to."


empty said...

I could read (a) either way, but in fact on first reading I interpreted it the same as (b). I'm with you, Jan.

MelissaJane said...

I can read that first example either way. For me, I need more context, or a tone of voice, to determine whether it means "I won't follow you because I don't trust you," or "I'm going to follow you, but distrustfully." The word choice just isn't enough for an unambiguous reading.

So no, I don't really agree with him that the nuances he discerns are inherent.

Sean Damkroger said...

I'm sorry, clarebr, but you got it all wrong.

You wrote:

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil."

Again that "though" is followed by the action that was almost not done.

Huh? No, that though is not "followed by the action that was almost not done." In the Biblical reference the word "though" means "despite". It could be written thusly:

"Despite the fact that I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil."

In the verse, David is stating that he will walk through that valley, but he will not fear evil because God is with him. There is no action "almost not done", he must traverse that valley, though he will not be afraid.

It could also be written:

"I will fear no evil, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death."

Whatever way it is written, the connotation of the word "though" is a synonym for the word "despite".