Grammar Moses: Where would we be with no ifs, ands or buts?

  • Reader Kevin Miller doesn't think this road sign applies to him.

    Reader Kevin Miller doesn't think this road sign applies to him. Courtesy of Kevin Miller

Updated 3/25/2023 5:14 PM

I once wrote about my overuse of the word "that" in response to a reader's question about it. I've been more mindful about how I use the word, but I haven't scrubbed it from my lexicon.

Reader Steve Bense's recent letter made me wonder whether I'm using another favorite word too much.


"In your March 12 column, I noticed your use of a word which I have striven to stop using," he wrote. "The word is 'but.' Furthermore, I noticed you started a sentence with it.

"I wish I could recall the source of this advice, however it has stuck with me for a long time. It was: 'Any time you insert the word "but" into a sentence, you're indicating everything prior to the "but" was a lie (at worst) or not worth remembering (at best).'

"I have been rather successful with removing the word from my vocabulary, replacing it with "however" or even the phrase "on the other hand."

On its face, that advice sounds a bit fussy and a waste of a perfectly good coordinating conjunction. I'll use this particular sense of the word to flesh out my thoughts.

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The seven coordinating conjunctions in English are "and," "but," "for," "nor," "or," "so" and "yet."

Note that I used the second "and" in the previous sentence to string similar things (in this case, coordinating conjunctions) together. That's what coordinating conjunctions do.

First, I performed a little study on whether authors who write books (which go through an editing process) have done away with "but" or, at least, are heading in that direction.

Using Google's Ngram Viewer, which should not be new to you if you read my column regularly, I found that in the last two centuries, the prevalence of the word "but" -- any sense of the word -- has ebbed, hitting its nadir in books published in 1992. But it has seen a resurgence and is back at 1906 levels. That doesn't bode well for Steve's suggestion that we should stop using it.


Could it be that writers are substituting "but" with "however," "though," "although" or "save?"

Nope. All of those (in all their senses) have neither grown in prominence nor diminished in more than 200 years. And all are much less popular than "but" in books.

The next thing I did was compare "and," "but," "for," "nor," "or," "so" and "yet" in the Ngram Viewer.

Again, there is more than one definition for these words, but, not surprisingly, "and" appears the most often, followed by "for," "or," "but," "so," "yet" and "nor."

With "but" listed among the Top 25 most used words in English, I think the common usage rule should apply here.

I applaud Steve's attempt at disrupting old habits for the sake of self-betterment, but I don't think I'll be joining him on this quest.

After writing the above, I checked my work and found that I used "but" four times completely unintentionally.

But I'm OK with that.


Reader Kevin Miller sent me the attached photo of a sign he encountered in Carmel, Indiana.

"I saw this while walking my dog," he said. "We walk at a pretty good clip, so I know it doesn't pertain to us."

Touche, Mark.

It could be that the "SLOW" portion of this sign was an admonition to drivers and the "PEDESTRIAN TRAFFIC" explains why.

Or, given that Carmel is several miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the average speed of traffic is 190 mph, the Carmel Public Works Department thought it should warn people that pedestrians there are considerably slower.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at Write him at jbaumann@ and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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