LATELY — 5 August 2000

On the Conjunction 'but'

The biography of Maxim Jacubowski (which appears on the first page of The Mammoth Book of New Erotica–he is the editor; I did not buy the book) begins with the information that he was “born in England but educated in France.” What meaning is to be attached to the word “but”? Why was “and” not used?

Here, “but” is used as a conjunction. As a conjunction, “but” connects two contrasting phrases, and draws attention to the fact that though the latter phrase does not generally follow from the former, this is a case in which it does. For example, “My father is Anglo-Australian, but my mother is Chinese.” Did Maxim use “but” in this sense? Could one conceivably be surprised that Maxim was educated in France having been born in England? Is the relationship between the two events significant in and of itself?

The answer to these questions is no. Maxim did not use “but” in this sense. His use of “but” was not intended to inform. Instead, Maxim used it in a way that was intended to amuse. Yes, it is so: Maxim used “but” in a humourous way, to suggest that there was something significant about his studying in France even though there was not; to suggest that a French education explained some aspect of his persona even though no such explanation was required.

In Australia and New Zealand “but” is sometimes used adverbially, as the final word of a sentence. If used in this way, “but” means “though” or “however.” For example, “Burger Rings taste good but.” (This is a line from a television advertisement for the Australian snack “Burger Rings.”)

Presently, this construction is only used ironically, or as an affectation. Was it, at one time, in common use? I do not know. My memory for these things does not stretch back that far.