But vs. Though: a Distinction That Matters

OK, class, listen up. This lesson is important. It’s about the most important word in a writer’s vocabulary, and how to use it right.

As I said in a previous post, the word is But. And not the little but that pairs items within a sentence, like adjectives (“tired but happy”) or verb phrases (“won the battle but lost the war”), but the big But that connects across sentences and paragraphs, and that begins with a capital letter because it comes at the start of a sentence.

(All right, time out for a chuckle at the fifth-grade humor. Yes, big Buts.)

But is just one of the connectives that indicate contrast. So you the writer need to know when to use But and when to use something else. And the most important something else is though or its variant although. (The choice between though and although is stylistic, not substantive.)

Here’s the distinction: What follows But is the author’s main point. What follows though is a subordinate point.

(a) I would follow you anywhere in the world you’d care to go. But I don’t trust you.

(b) I would follow you anywhere in the world you’d care to go, though I don’t trust you.

Clear enough? In (a), the author won’t be following, because the distrust is too much. In (b), the author distrusts but is going to follow anyhow.

Here is an example from E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”:

But although it wasn’t wild, it was a fairly large and undisturbed lake and there were places in it that, to a child at least, seemed infinitely remote and primeval.

White’s lesser point is that the lake wasn’t wild. His main point, in contrast with the lesser, is that it seemed wild or at least primeval to a child.

Or take Shakespeare, Sonnet 116:

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Shakespeare’s point is not that time affects people, but that love is impervious to time. Replace though with but and the meaning is turned on its head:

Love’s not Time’s fool, but rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come.

There’s a grammatical reason for this. Though is a subordinating conjunction. It introduces a subordinate thought. But, on the other hand, is a coordinating conjunction. What follows But is equal grammatically to what came before, and is more important because it comes after.

But grammar schmammar. You don’t have to understand a word of the preceding paragraph to recognize the difference between but and though. In fact, in reading you automatically recognize the difference, whether you’re aware of it or not. And that’s why, as a writer, you need to know which to use.

For these insights I must acknowledge my debt to William J. Kerrigan, who declared in his 1974 textbook, Writing to the Point:

The real weakness in students’ vocabularies is lack of knowledge of, and use of, the little words we think with, like therefore, thus, whereas, although, however, and but.

I’m proud to have continued that instruction in my revisions of his book, now available in its sixth edition from Birch Grove Publishing in Roseville, Minn. It’s the best composition textbook ever written. But that’s a story for another time.

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