Q&A: Exercising your but

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Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation. This week, we’re obsessed with buts.
Q: Hi Australian Writers’ Centre, I was wondering why you keep putting commas before a conjunction like “but”? I was taught that this is a no-no…

A: It’s true, we love comma-buts and we cannot lie. Your English teacher did lie however, because putting a comma before conjunctions like “but”, “and”, “because” or “so” is fine if it leads to an independent clause.

Q: An independent clause?
A: Yes – not to be confused with an independent Claus, which is Santa whenever Mrs Claus is away visiting her mother.

Q: Are you sure?
A: Not about the Santa thing, that was a joke. But the other thing, yes. In fact, many of us were indeed taught that a conjunction should replace a comma, but sometimes – just like the serial comma (putting a comma before “and” – also known as the Oxford comma), and just like twice in this sentence already, it’s important to have both to aid the readability of a sentence. It’s a similar thing to those who say you should never begin a sentence with a conjunction. But we love doing that! It’s more about syntax than semantics.

Q: So when should I use one?
A: It’s when you are beginning a new thought that could live happily without the first part. “I can make it today but not tomorrow” is fine left alone. However, “I can do today, but let’s see if I can squeeze you in tomorrow” is better with the comma. Like the serial comma, it is both a personal preference and style thing, so be prepared for inconsistencies!

Q: But you’d recommend using it?
A: Yes, to help clear up reader ambiguities. It’s all about sculpting a more desirable “but”…

Q: On a slightly related note, what about people saying things that end with it? Personally I wouldn’t do it, but.
A: It’s a common affliction here in Australia (and Scotland apparently), to add “but” to the butt-end of a sentence when speaking. But it should never be written this way!

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