1. 67Kangaroos
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    67Kangaroos Contributing Member

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    'but for'

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by 67Kangaroos, Nov 17, 2009.

    i feel like this might have been asked before but a quick search gave me nothing, so i guess i'll re-ask

    how do you feel about "but for"? is it even gramatically correct?

    ex. It was quiet but for the crickets' chirping.
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It is a legitimate idiom, equivalent to except for. You can find it in the dictionary, e.g.: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/but
     
  3. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I am actually quite fond if this little construction.

    It is rarely seen or heard in American English.

    A pretty little wall flower at the dance who would never get her dance card
    signed but for those young gallants like myself who see the value in the overlooked.

    ;)
     
  4. sidtvicious
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    sidtvicious Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree and really like the metaphor Wreybies.
     
  5. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Haha, that's sweet.
     
  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    agreed, but for the fact that a comma is needed before the 'but/except'...
     
  7. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    "but for" sounds poetic, whereas "except for" sounds normal.

    If you were writing in a casual tone, I think "except for" sounds better. If you were writting a fantasy in an elegant form, than "but for."
     
  8. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not sure what 'normal' is. I think the distinction between 'but for' and 'except for' is more a matter of common usage. In all likelihood, you are American and, thus, you are not accustomed to hearing such phrasing as "but for". This does not make it less than normal. It only means that it falls strangely on your ear because you are not used to hearing it. You would also, no doubt, have a difficult time accepting a boot as anything but what you wear on your foot, or a bonnet as other than what a woman would wear on her head (though nowadays only at Easter!)

    Language is a fluid and ever-changing thing, in constant flux. Years ago, ain't was considered quite acceptable. Somewhere along the way, however, someone decided they didn't like it and, before long, it was gross and totally the domain of the uneducated. Not so long ago, "impact" was never used as a verb. But today, with many people still kicking and screaming and clawing, shuddering at every use of it as a verb, news journalists and others will now give you the low-down on how this or that will impact that or this.

    So, I'm not sure I can buy your argument that one form is for poetic and 'elegant' writing and the other is for a more 'casual tone'. It's just a matter of what you are accustomed to. And, I think you meant "then" not "than".
     
  9. Atari
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    Atari Active Member

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    Interestingly, if you look in the dictionary, 'but' used to mean, 'without it being the case that'.

    So they were actually saying, "I would have died without it being the case that my friend was prepared to help."

    So it is not even an idiom, it is a valid word, syntactically and semantically.


    Nevertheless, I would disagree with you, thewordsmith.

    "But for" IS archaic, and I do not believe that I have heard it used in real life. Ever. (I am an American)
    It sounds too formal, or poetic, while everyone says 'except'.

    It is a simple observation that Architectus made, and I believe an accurate one, as it concerns modern society.
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    This American has heard it used, albeit infrequently.
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    as has this one, who has probably also used it herself!
     
  12. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    I would use it, but for the lack of opportunity to do so.

    Hey, I used it! :)
     
  13. LadyLazarus
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    LadyLazarus Senior Member

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    I generally say 'but for', except for the occasional time I do not. Though I tend to write 'except for' more often.

    For example, I would say "I have all of Neil Gaiman's books in hardback; but for Neverwhere,". But I would write it "I have all of Neil Gaiman's books in hardback; except for Neverwhere,". Just because I have time to mentally remind myself not to sound so pompous when writing.
     
  14. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    In this case, wouldn't it be better to say, "I have all of Neil Gaiman's books in hardback but Neverwhere," without the "for"?

    I generally think of "but for" as "were it not for" (a particular event or obstacle) rather than "except" in the sense of "besides" or something you're lacking.

    Charlie
     
  15. LadyLazarus
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    LadyLazarus Senior Member

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    Quite right. But I have a compulsive need to cram more words into a sentence than are strictly necessary. Needless to say this makes me tedious to converse with. :p
     
  16. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    You could also eliminate "Neverwhere" and change the spelling of "for" to "four," but then you'd have to get rid of some of your Neil Gaiman books.

    (I have all of Neil Gaiman's books in hardback but four.)

    ;)
     
  17. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    I expect Neil Gaiman does use 'but for', but then again, I think he might have been aiming for a gently ironic/mock historical tone.
    Let's face it--'but for' IS a teeny touch old-fashioned, although it can work in poetry or something more weighty.
    As a (mostly) British English user I'd say that I've rarely heard 'but for' in contemporary written or spoken English unless you count phrases like 'There but for the grace of God go I'.
     
  18. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    I use it quite often. Usually, one or the other (but for/except for) sounds best, and I go with that one. For me, this is one of the great joys of writing--finding the perfect combination of words, choosing between seemingly identical options for the best possible fit. I especially like the subtle difference it makes in fantasy, where you might want to channel a certain "voice," but don't want to annoy your reader with "thees" and "thous."
     
  19. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    you may want to fix that typo! ;-)
     

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