Pétur Knútsson
BUT

This page is about how to write English, for Icelanders.
It deals with only one point - how to use the word but.
You wouldn't think that was a very important point, would you?
Not unless you'd been teaching Icelanders to write English for over thirtry years, as I have.

In order to understand why it's so difficult for Icelanders to use the word but correctly, you have to undestand a very basic difference between Icelandic and English syntax. (I'm using "basic" in its original sense here, not its modern senseless sense, which is, basically, meaningless. I'm using "basic" to mean "fundamental". Crucial. Sine qua non.)

Get but right, and understand why it's right, and get to feel it really is right, and you've broken through.
The rest will not be plain sailing, but it will be possible to navigate.

Icelandic en, English but

First, look at the following sentences:

  1. Margrét byrjar í háskólanum í haust, en hún stefnir á lögfrćđi.
  2. Jón var svangur, en hann hafđi ekki borđađ síđan um morguninn.

These are perfectly good Icelandic sentences. Now suppose our Icelandic student turns them into English:

  1. Margaret starts at university this autumn, but she wants to be a lawyer
  2. Jon was hungry, but he hadn’t eaten since the morning.
Something seems to have gone wrong. In spite of what the dictionary says, Icelandic en does NOT seem to "mean" the same as English but.
Sentences 3 and 4 are in fact equivalent to 5 and 6:
  1. Margaret starts at university this autumn, in spite of wanting to be a lawyer.
  2. John was hungry, even though he had not eaten since morning
So while sentences 1 and 2 are meaningful sentences, 3 and 4, like 5 and 6, don't make sense. What's going on?

The simple (and superficial) answer is of course that Icelandic en and Icelandic but don't mean the same things, whatever the dictionary says. They "mean" some of the same things, but not all of them. So let's begin by trying to get the dictionary meanings right:

Icelandic en can join sentences which CORRESPOND or SUPPORT each other, while English but always implies an ALTERNATIVE; it joins two sentences where the second one LIMITS or NEGATES the first. But ALWAYS means “but on the other hand”, “but in contrast”, “conversely”,  “even though”.  This is what I shall call the Superficial Explanation.

The Superficial Explanation is really quite useful, since it gives us a rule which will tell us when we can use "but" and when we can't. The rue is this: instead of "but" in your sentence, say "but on the other hand". If the sentence still makes sense, then "but" by itself is OK. If not, then you have some work to do.

A short exercise

Test yourself, to see if you've got this point  (if you are an Icelander!). Which of the following sentences are OK in English, and which are strange?
  1. It rained all day, but we didn't mind.
  2. Harry's got his coat on, but he's forgotten his shoes.
  3. Alice came late as usual, but she had no sense of time.
  4. Alice came late as usual, but this time she had a good excuse.
  5. The Prime Minister and the President have a special relationship, but they are old schoolmates.
  6. The Prime Minister and the President have an uneasy relationship, but their views are very different.
  7. The Prime Minister and the President see eye-to-eye on everything, but not on this occasion.
  8. Someting strange is going on here, but there's probably an explanation for it.

Answer:  9, 11 and 12 are not OK: thee two parts of the sentence agree with each other, so "but" is the wrong word.. The others are fine. Can you see why? If not, read the "superficial explanation" again and try to apply it to sentences 7 - 13.

Let's look at 9, 11 and 12 a bit closer. If we subsitute "and" for "but", the sentences may sound strange, but at leas they make sense:

9a.    Alice came late as usual, and she had no sense of time.
11a.  The Prime Minister and the President have a special relationship, and they are old schoolmates.
12a.  The Prime Minister and the President have an uneasy relationship, and their views are very different.

Actually, 12a sounds OK, but the others would be better if we rewrote the sentences:
  1. Alice came late as usual, because/since she had no sense of time
  2. The Prime Minister and the President have a special relationship, being old schoolmates.

And we could improve 12a:

  1. With their very different views, the Prime Minister and the President have an uneasy relationship

You may notice that these "improved" sentences are more complex than the originals. All the sentences 7-14 are what we call coordinated sentences - they are each really two independent sentences joined by a coordinator.  AND and BUT are the two most common coordinators.  Here are some more cooordinated sentences:

  1. John is happy. Mary is ecaatic.  -- John is happy and Mary is ecaatic.
  2. John is happy. Mary is sad. -- John is happy but Mary is sad.

However, our corrected sentences, 15, 16 and 17, are not coordinated. They are single sentences, each made up of a main clause and a subordinate clause:

   MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATE CLAUSE
20 Alice came late as usual because she had no sense of time
21 The Prime Minister and the President have a special relationship being old schoolmates
22 The Prime Minister and the President have an uneasy relationship with their very different views

This, then, seems to be the underlying problem.  Icelandic has a coordinative tendency: it likes to add on new sentences to explain the ones that have gone before. English is more likely to use main clauses modified by subordinate clauses.

Here are some examples of the coordinative style:

They pushed the boat into the water, and then clambered aboard. John immediately began to feel sea-sick, but Sally felt exhilarated. There was a stiff wind blowing, and she hoisted the sail. Soon the boat was bounding over the waves.

And here are the same sentences with main clauses and subordination.  The main clauses in the following are underlined:

Pushing the boat into the water, they clambered aboard. Although John immediately began to feel sea-sick, Sally felt exhilarated. As soon as she had hoisted the sail the boat began to bound over the waves, for there was a stiff wind blowing.

So if you are making but-mistakes in English, the solution may be for you to practice writing subordinate senences.  But there's no need to switch over entirely: look at the two passages above and you may come the the conclusion that the first one, the plain coordinative style, is more direct and expressive. Which of the follwoing strikes you as better:

The wind was blowing the snow into their faces, and they made little progress
They made little progress since the wind was blowing snow into their faces

And how's this for the Icelandic version:

Ferđin sóttist seint,  en stormurinn stóđ í fangiđ.


pk, September 2003
Rewritten 10 Jan 2012

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