My cousin, Mark, brain ninja’d me when he was visiting with me earlier this year, and it changed my life.
1. To subtly and/or profoundly alter someone’s thinking, especially unbeknownst to said someone.
1. One who subtly and/or profoundly alters someone’s thinking, especially unbeknownst to said someone.
Mark and I were discussing psychology-related things while walking downtown, and he shared with me something that his mentor taught him. Apparently, his mentor hadn’t used the word “but” in over six years.
I didn’t believe him at first. Naturally, being the inquisitive skeptic that I am, I asked, Why?
Mark explained some of his mentor’s reasons, and started making a case for why words like “but” carry with them, in most use cases, an inherent negativity – albeit often a subtle one. Allow me to elaborate.
“But” is a dismissive word. It’s “this instead of that.” It’s like saying, “Ignore what I just said; what follows is what really matters.” It asks you to take your eyes off of something and look in another direction. It makes the “talk to the hand” gesture to what precedes it and points at what follows it. “But” is, as far as more suitably being described as positive or negative goes, negative – even when something positive follows.
It’s a subtle, and often unintentional, negativity. Think about this example:
“I understand how you feel, but…”
It doesn’t even matter what comes after “but”. As soon as “but” enters the picture, it reduces the sincerity and value of the preceding thought. The speaker wants his audience to feel understood and/or validated. The problem is, “but” dismisses that validation as soon as it’s out of the gate.
Using the same example above, what would my cousin and his mentor suggest I say, instead?
Replace “but” with “and”:
“I understand how you feel, and…”
Do you hear the difference? Do you feel the difference? “And” is additive. It’s “this along with that.” It’s like saying, “What I just said matters, and so does what follows.” It asks you to keep your eyes on something and watch what comes along side it. It places what precedes it in one open palm and what follows it in the other. “And” is, as far as more suitably being described as positive or negative goes, positive – even when something negative follows.
My cousin’s mentor asserted that there is no instance where “but” is a better choice than “and”. Or, inversely phrased, that there is no instance where “and” is not a functional substitute for “but”.
Some Thoughts: “Positive” vs. “Negative”
All of this isn’t to say that what follows “but” or “and” is guaranteed to be negative or positive, respectively. For example:
“He was rushing to catch his train, but he missed it.”
“He was rushing to catch his train, but found a briefcase full of money, instead.”
The first has a negative outcome, the second, a positive one. It’s the conjunction that’s inherently negative or positive in nature. Substitute “and” for “but”:
“He was rushing to catch his train, and he missed it.”
“He was rushing to catch his train, and found a briefcase full of money, instead.”
Same outcomes, different overall aura of negativity, subtle as it may be.
You may be shaking your head and thinking, “This is stupid.” If so, I understand how you feel, but… 😉
As my cousin and I discussed this seemingly absurd idea, I raised some objections.
Admittedly, I recognized how “and” differed from “but” in a subtle way, and how using “and” in a sensitive conversation involving someone’s feelings may very well be the better choice. That was the extent of my agreement.
Here are some objections I had:
- I thought, “There’s no way ‘and’ can work in place of ‘but’ in every possible case.”
I had trouble finding an example where the rule of thumb didn’t hold true.
- I thought, “‘But’ is also used to draw contrast between two things; that’s not negative!”
This is true. This is where it got weird.
I realized that even though drawing contrast is not negative, contrast can still be drawn with “and” as a connector, and “but”‘s inherent magnetism for the negative somehow disqualified it as the better option. Ever.
My ‘But’-tastic Journey
Honestly, I was opposed to the idea my cousin was presenting. I thought it was ridiculous. It was as if some part of me was offended by the claim. And simultaneously, I was intrigued.
Almost immediately I began noticing when I’d use ‘but’. It suddenly stuck out like a sore thumb. While I wasn’t a “believer”, I couldn’t help but (<– I’ll address this later) think through what he had told me each and every time I caught myself using “but”.
I slowly started realizing how “and” really was an acceptable alternative, and how the overall aura of things I wanted to communicate was affected by switching from “but” to “and”. Sometimes the effect was so minor, I questioned if it was even present. Other times, switching to “and” profoundly changed the “feel” of what I was saying.
One thing that really blew my mind was how this thought process affected my construction of sentences. In some instances, attempting to change “but” to “and” would lead me to completely reword my sentence. Whether breaking up a sentence into more than one thought or simply reorganizing the sentence flow to eliminate “but”, the changes were always positive. I could find no complaint with the end results.
As much as that little part of me didn’t want to accept what I was experiencing, I ultimately came to embrace the notion of refraining from using “but”. That being said, I’m not as hardcore about it as my cousin’s mentor with his alleged six year of abstinence; I still use it here and there – sometimes out of sheer laziness and habit, and other times because I think it’s the better choice (I may be wrong).
The most mind blowing part of this journey was seeing how the whole thing affected my entire perspective of myself, others, and circumstances. I kid you not; exploring the notion of eliminating “but” from my vocabulary fundamentally changed my perspective on life.
I started recognizing subtle differences in the overall “polarity” of things involving both myself and people around me. Regardless of whether or not “but” was being used in a given situation, it was as if I had become more sensitive – no, aware – of “positivity” and “negativity” in general. It was weird. It still is.
The most meaningful aspect was becoming more aware of the degree of positivity and negativity in myself. My thought life, my attitudes, what I brought to a situation or conversation, how I interacted with someone, how I processed an experience… and more. I started choosing my words and actions more carefully, and I focused on being intentional about gravitating toward positivity whenever I could.
All of it happened because of a simple concept communicated to me by my cousin during a casual downtown stroll.
Watch Out for the Masqueraders
As I attempted to eliminate “but”, I found myself trying to substitute other words in besides “and”. Words such as “however”, “yet”, “except”, and “although”. I learned that these are simply words masquerading as “but”. They’re “but”‘s cousins, and should be treated as such.
Earlier, I used “but” in the following sentence:
“While I wasn’t a “believer”, I couldn’t help but think through what he had told me each and every time I caught myself using “but”.”
This is an example of an occurrence where I’m “at peace” with using “but”. 🙂 Call me a traitor if you want; in my opinion, in such an instance, it serves as an expression devoid of a positive or negative quality.
For the sake of intellectual exercise, here’s how I might change the above sentence to eliminate “but”:
“While I wasn’t a “believer”, I couldn’t help it; I was compelled to think through what he had told me each and every time I caught myself using “but”.”
“While I wasn’t a “believer”, I found myself compelled to think through what he had told me each and every time I caught myself using “but”.”
“While I wasn’t a “believer”, I still thought through what he had told me each and every time I caught myself using “but”.”
You get the idea.
Even though I allow exceptions in my own use of “but”, the exceptions themselves act as a flag to remind me to consider the positive and negative nature of what I’m saying and how I’m saying it. So even in that way, my accepted use of “but” still serves as a way to keep my linguistic “polarity” in check.
I’ll leave you with this: I’m not convinced the use of “but” is something to avoid entirely, and I’m not convinced it’s not.
On one hand, I can’t deny the positive effects my semi-prohibition of “but” has had on me. On the other hand, I like using “but”, and I think there are instances where it delivers a linguistic punch that no other word can achieve. There must be a balance – a middle ground.
Perhaps the value of this journey is the heightened awareness of positivity and negativity I’ve gained, and perhaps the journey itself is more important than the intended goal. Perhaps, as with filtering water, the impurities of subtle negativity are being removed, and what will eventually be left is a refined understanding and use of the word “but”.
Here’s an interesting/fun challenge: In the comments, post examples of sentences that you think only work with “but”, and I’ll see if I can come up with an acceptable alternative.