Does Your But Look Big?

I’m a writer, so it’s no surprise that I love words. I love long words like “onomatopoeia.” Short words like “we.” Active words like “scamper.” Passive words—well, they are sometimes necessary in writing, but they’re not my favorites. I do like the word “is” and sometimes I use it too much. I love concrete nouns like “toddler.” And active verbs like “whispered.”

Even saying “whisper” is fun. Try it. Now. Go ahead.

I’m waiting. Say it out loud, but not too loud. Whisper it. “Whisper.” It’s soft and airy. I dare that word to be anything but gentle.

The Spelling Bee


I used to be a great speller. Consistently, I was one of the top two students left standing in Mrs. Cudley’s fifth grade spelling bee. Steven Stiles was my keen opponent. I even learned to spell “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” just in case the teacher pitched it to us as a tie-breaker.

You stopped reading at Mrs. Cudley’s name, didn’t you? I swear that was my teacher’s name. She was a hoot. She’d prop her hip on a student’s desk and tell us the most hilarious stories. Fifth-grade humor isn’t easy for an adult to master, but Mrs. Cudley was an expert. Yep, she was funny AND she knew how to build volcanoes that really erupted. No wonder Mrs. Cudley was everyone’s favorite teacher. Did you notice how much I love typing Mrs. Cudley’s name and it’s even more fun to shout. From the back of the room. While waving an eager hand in the air. Stiff-armed.  Which I often did.

I say I used to be a great speller because my brain mutinied when I began studying Spanish in the eighth grade. So many Spanish words are similar to their English counterparts and sometimes I’m confused—for a moment—on which language I’m using and which spelling is correct.

Take the word, commence—English for “to begin.” In Spanish, the word is “comenzar.” To say “she begins her class at 8” in Spanish is “Comence la clase a las ocho .”

See what I mean about the confusion? Commence and comence? Even as I typed that last phrase, spellcheck corrected commence. Drat! It did it again!

I don’t usually curse spellcheck because it helps more often than it frustrates me, but honestly, couldn’t it just once give up correcting me when I string together more than three words it doesn’t understand? I’m writing Spanish, for Pedro’s sake. Don’t you see? Instead, I get the red squiggly lines under the Spanish words.

Red—the editor’s stop sign. Red—it always means “You’re WRONG. STOP. FIX THIS.”

This takes me to a topic that might be interesting to people who don’t manipulate words for a living. You people who don’t have multiple characters living in your heads.

I’m talking about the overuse of the word “but.”

I deliberately used “but” several times in the initial paragraphs.  Did you notice?  It’s a necessary word to link contradictory clauses in a sentence. Too heavy for the non-word-nerds?

I’ll break it down.

Take the statement I used above when I asked you to repeat “Whisper.” I wrote, “Say it out loud, but not too loud.” It’s a pretty benign statement, right? “But” is part of the instructions. However, you probably didn’t feel pushed around or insulted by the “but.”

Who caught the fact I used “however” as a synonym for “but?”

In space, no one can hear you scream

How about this statement muttered in horror movies? “Scream all you want, but no one will hear you.”

Ooh, I just shivered. But not as much as I shuddered the first time I heard this line from a popular movie, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

In the first movie line example, the word “but” weakens the fear factor.

Watch your but…

The word “but” can get you into a lot of trouble if you’re not careful. I’m thinking of the scene where the poor husband is caught off-guard by his wife returning from the hair salon. When pressed, he answers, “Sure, I like your new hair color, but it’s a little too orange.”

Seriously? Does the man really think his wife won’t be insulted? The “but” used here negates his comment about liking the hair color in the first place. She’s not stupid and he won’t get away with that attempt to soften his comment. Because he used the word “but.”

What if he said instead, “Hmm, your hair is the same shade as my basketball and you know how much I love shooting hoops with the guys. In fact, that’s where I’m headed now.”

He might get away with it.

Try on this statement, “Daisy is a good girl, but she’s such a tramp.”

See the contradiction? Can Daisy really be both? The “but” totally reverses the first clause. Better just to call a tramp a tramp and be done with it.

Parental Guidance

Parents sound very wishy washy when they pepper their statements with “buts.” Like when the mother says, “Of course you can go to the mall with Tiffany, but only after you clean your room.” Her teenager shot out the door right after she heard the first two words.

It’s better when the mother takes control of the situation from the outset. No “buts” about it. She should say, “Clean your room first.” Teenagers only listen to the first few words their parents speak. Make them count.

And while we’re on the subject of teenagers, you should know that they have their own version of “but.” It’s the phrase “I’m just sayin’.” It sounds like this, “Sure, I like your hair. I’m just sayin’ it’s a little too orange.” Most of the time, the phrase “I’m just sayin’” is accompanied with a hand held up in the air to stop any sass back.

“In my opinion” and “just so you know” are interchangeable phrases for “but,” “however,” and “I’m just sayin’.”

You can use the word “but” and any of its synonyms anytime you want, but if I were you, I’d be careful.

Using “but” willy-nilly works; I’m just sayin’, it’s better to say what you mean and mean what you say.

Fill up your intimate conversations with all the “buts” you want, just so you know the consequences.

Try this instead

Imagine all the “buts” you use in conversations have red squiggly lines beneath them. Stop. Examine the comment to see if it’s really what you mean to say. Do you really want to negate the first part of your comment?

Like in the comment, “I really enjoyed your blog, Terry, but I didn’t understand the point you were trying to make.”

Try the word “and” instead. Or make your comments two separate statements. “I like your new hair color. It’s so orange.”

Just like Lucille Ball.

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