We're obsessed with our buts.
At least, that's what I've been told by more than one person in the newsroom.
The problem is that we try to insert too many of them into places they don't belong. We use but to signal a conflict that doesn't exist or when the conjunction should be "and."
I asked Paul Soucy, a veteran copy editor and former colleague, to send me a note he wrote for the staff at USA Today a decade or so ago. Here are excerpts from the memo he titled, "But. Why?"
"One objection is mainly stylistic. An over-reliance on but — not just as a word but as a rhetorical device — results in a story that reads like a Ping-Pong match:
– "A, but B.
– "C, but D.
– "E, but F. ...
"... all the way to the end."
"The other major objection to but is linguistic. ... Without getting too grammar-y, let's just say that but is best used to illustrate contradiction, not just contrast. What comes after but should have some impact on what comes before but; it shouldn't just be something different.
"We run a lot of sentences constructed like this one: 'Chet has a red Ford, but Ned has a blue Toyota.'
"Why but? There's contrast in this sentence, but no contradiction. The fact that Ned has a blue Toyota has no bearing whatsoever on the fact that Chet has a red Ford. ... If there is no contradiction, there's no need for but.
"We could just as easily say ... 'Chet has a red Ford and Ned has a blue Toyota.' [Or] 'Chet has a red Ford. Ned has a blue Toyota.' "
Paul finished with three tips:
– "The troublesome buts will usually jump out at you. The best buts are invisible."
– "Not sure whether a but belongs? Try just taking it out."
– "If the sentence can be written without the but, perhaps it should be."
If you've read this far, you may have a song in your head: Schoolhouse Rock's "Conjunction Junction."
This post also may have brought back memories of last year's nagging about sentences that start with "so." If you haven't read that one, please do. We're still "soing" a lot.
Other language issues we've droned on about include:
– Begs The Question
– Farther And Further
– Imagined Elegance
– Lay And Lie
With that, I'll butt out.