Not this “but” that

I bought the School House Rock DVD about two years ago, and got a pretty good laugh when I caught Mary running around the house singing “Conjunction junction, who lost function?” A funny chica she is.

That’s of course not exactly how the song goes. It says “What’s your function?” instead, and the function is to hook up words and phrases and clauses. And then we learn about several conjunctions and how they work. I’d like to focus on the word “but” since we’re sometimes oblivious to its power.

In one of my classes, a teacher suggested we should always use the word “and” instead of “but.” I remembered a manager telling me the same thing. Both times I thought it was kind of weird. Sometimes a contrast is required, and then the word “and” does not have the intended effect. For example: “I want to sleep and I have insomnia.” Sounds okay, but slightly off, right? So let’s not go cutting up our dictionary just yet.

I do think, however, that we should consider its placement more carefully. Does the placement of the word “but” change the meaning of the sentence? Consider the following benign example:

“I’d like to try the dessert, but I’m full.”
“I’m full, but I’d like to try the dessert.”

The first seems to suggest that even though I’d like to try the dessert, I can’t because I’m full. The second suggests that even though I am full, I would still like to try dessert. Let’s try another:

“I need new shoes, but I’m broke.”
“I’m broke, but I need new shoes.”

In the first, the fact that I’m broke seems to render my need for shoes obsolete. In the second, one would conclude that I need shoes regardless of not having money.

One more example for emphasis:

“I fell, but I got up.”
“I got up, but I fell.”

See what I mean? “But” is a powerful word there. What about using the word “but” in making statements to or about others? Certainly there’s a difference in these examples:

“You’re not perfect, but I love you.”
“I love you, but you’re not perfect.”

“You’re smart, but you have a lot to learn.”
“You have a lot to learn, but you’re smart.”

Whatever comes after “But” could stand on its own; whatever comes before amplifies the statement. Consider that when giving feedback. Honestly, people typically don’t need criticism nearly as much as we might think they do. When we decide criticism IS necessary, we tend to think that saying something nice immediately beforehand will prove our intentions are benevolent. And then we’re frustrated when feelings are hurt.

It’s true that a spoonful of sugar can help the medicine go down, but that’s only if the sugar chases the bitter. Not the other way around. We follow praise with criticism, separated by a word that emphasizes the latter in relation to the former, and then we wonder how they could misunderstand our motives.

The problem? Misuse of the word “but.” But, there’s an easy fix. Conjunction Junction had it right. Remember: “Not this BUT that” — only use “but” if the intention is to negate whatever precedes it. In other words, if you don’t want to go around crushing people, watch where you put your “but.”

This week when I think before I speak, if I find the word “but” in my phrase, I’ll test what comes after it as the stand-alone phrase it ought to be. If the stand-alone phrase doesn’t sound right, the sentence as a whole must be rethought. And if all goes well, I’ll be a more effective communicator soon. Wish me luck!

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