Posted on April 6, 2014

Buffy: [to Giles] Uh-oh, you have but-face.
[Giles looks confused]
Buffy: You look like you’re gonna say ‘but’.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “A New Man” (2000) 

Words are important to me. I’m a writer; words are my life. As far back as I can remember I’ve enjoyed some word games (puns, limericks) and detested others (guilt trips, shaming statements). I’m a card-carrying member of the Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say Club.

Which brings me to but. This has come up countless times, often as I’m parenting. I’ve made a point of being very mindful in my parenting, which includes being very careful about what I say and how I say it. Dozens (!) of people have asked me to write more about parenting (though I can assure you this will not turn into a mommy blog!) and my philosophy on it, especially after they meet my kids. It is very nice to know that when people meet my kids, they immediately want to know what I did—or didn’t do—as a parent. And one of those things is the use of but.

But is a course correction, a turn in the road, a change in the meaning of what preceded it or in what we expect to come after it. 

  • He was going to answer the phone but then thought better of it. (He didn’t answer the phone.)
  • She went with her friend to the restaurant but didn’t order anything. (She didn’t do what one normally does in a restaurant.)
  • Pilots thought they spotted debris on the water, but it turned out to be fishing equipment. (The objects were not what they thought they were.)
  • I wanted to go out with you, but I was busy. (I didn’t want to go out with you at that time.)
What does this have to do with parenting? These:
  • I know you want your toy, but we didn’t bring it with us. (You can’t have your toy.)
  • You may say you’re warm now, but it’s cold outside and you’ll need your jacket. (I know better than you.)
  • I’m sorry I hurt you, but you shouldn’t have made me angry. (It’s your fault.)
It’s that last one that I promised myself I’d never do. Because if you say you’re sorry and then follow it with but, no matter what reason you have, you’re really saying you’re not sorry.
Instead, replace but with and. It changes everything.
  • I know you want your toy, and I forgot to bring it with us. (I empathize.)
  • You’re warm now, and I know it’s cold outside so we’ll bring your jacket just in case. (You are warm now, and I could be wrong about how the cold will affect you. Just in case, we’ll have the jacket.)
  • I’m sorry I hurt you, and I felt really angry. (I’m taking responsibility and apologizing, though there should be more to the apology than this.)
I’m not the only one who has this problem with but:

I’m Sorry, but “I’m Sorry” Isn’t an Apology

Try and next time. Just try it and see what a difference it makes. 

1 Comment

  1. Bayou Laura

    Ha! My husband had a terrible habit of saying "but," and a few years ago I trained him into saying "and" instead. It makes SUCH a huge difference with the kids, with the tone of our conversations and with the discussions he has with coworkers. I'm so glad someone else can articulate the importance of this word choice.

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