The But

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A few years ago, when I was at a leadership development course, I sat next to a woman who told me about a personal issue she was dealing with. She said she’d recently been to India and had consulted a “guru” about the matter. She told the matter to the guru, and at the end of it the man said just 10 words,

Give up the word “but” and replace it with “and”.

This made me laugh. It was a perfect confirmation of every cliché about the flummoxing nature of a “guru’s” conversation.

When I got home, I thought about it further and decided to check the readiest source of evidence for my own language style which was my personal blog. I reviewed the blog looking for the word “but” and found it everywhere. There was barely a single post from hundreds of posts that didn’t feature the word, and in most posts, I used it several times.

I started to look at how the word affected the post, and noticed that whenever the word appeared it was as if a little alarm went off. Blah, blah, blah, but blah, blah, blah, blah. Whatever the subject matter of the sentence, I realised the word was saying to me,

There’s something wrong here, something not right.

I started to experience the powerfully destructive nature of the word. It is the hand grenade of the linguistic world, thrown in to a sentence and causing carnage on all sides.

From that day on, I resolved to aim to give up the word “but” and replace it with “and”. Several years on, this is still an aim of mine. Sometimes, I succeed, other times, I fall back into the old pattern. What always surprises me is how strong is my resistance to giving it up, and how oddly the “and” can sound.

Try it for yourself and see. Note what’s there for you as you write a sentence without it, as you attempt to find ways to communicate your thought without using it. Note the strangeness of the word “and” to our habitual patterns of writing and thinking.

What you might also notice, particularly after you’ve practised for some time giving up the word, is how powerful your writing has grown.

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Reblogged from my business website: Business Writing Coach. Subscribe on the site to get new blog posts by email.

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17 thoughts on “The But

  1. It’s rather like saying “I love you, but—-” . There is something coming after in both words actually.

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    • You know, Kim, I’d be surprised if you found much evidence in your blog writing at least. You’re writing about topics very close to your heart with passion; when we’re writing like that we don’t usually reach for “but”.

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  2. Yep. I do that. Someone told me some years ago that when u use but, it cancels out the words before it. I either use and or stop before using but because I know if I keep going, I’m about to create an excuse or justify something that I’ll end up spanking myself for later.

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  3. The suggestion to replace “but” with “and” was first given to me in my first round of marriage counseling sessions. Wow, what a revelation! I realized how that 3-letter word negated everything said before it. “I appreciate what you are saying, BUT…” means I don’t really appreciate what you are saying.

    Like you, I try not to use “but,” BUT find myself uttering it way too often. At least I’m aware and reword my sentences and sentiment when I catch myself. I also gently (and with humor) point out to others when they say it.

    Thanks for the reminder–I need it! :)

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    • Fascinating that they raise it in marriage counselling.

      What I love about watching for it is that it allows me to actually touch the sides of the (tiny!) box in which I think. I can come right up to the boundary and see it’s a boundary.

      It reveals so many things. One is what Totsy said: how I use it to conflate two unrelated things so I can justify something to myself, eg, “I want to lose 5kg but I can’t go running at present”, “I want to go on holidays but I don’t have the money”, “I want to have a great relationship with X but X keeps doing that thing”, etc. Replacing it with “and” in any of these cases is profound.

      I noticed a great example of the hand grenade effect a few weeks ago. I had supplied a quotation to a prospective client, and I sent an email a few days later to follow up. The man replied like this, “No questions from me, but I have to circulate it to my colleagues …” Wow, I thought, thar she blows!!

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  4. Love it. If I hadn’t already deleted my last few posts in a moment of dissatisfaction, I’d totally be looking for the word ‘but.’ The word ‘and’ is so very empowering though. AND that’s what I gotta say about that. Lovely post!

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