But… Don’t Say It!

“But” is a word that is in our everyday lexicon. By the end of this blog post, I hope you will join me in severely reducing it from your discourse. 

Merriam-Webster offers a variety of definitions depending on use.. For example, “but” can be used as a conjunction, a preposition, adverb, pronoun and noun. This post focuses on the use of ‘but’ as a conjunction, meaning “except for the fact.” 

I might suggest the word ‘but’ is overused. . Let’s look at some examples:

  • “I like that sweater, but I really like the red one.”
  • “You did a great job on that presentation, but it could have been shorter.”

Now, let’s substitute “but” for the definition:

  • “I like that sweater, except for the fact that I really like the red one.”
  • “You did a great job on that presentation, except for the fact that it could have been shorter.”

When I hear those sentences what I really hear is:

  • “I don’t like that sweater at all and I’m trying to get around having to tell you that.”
  • “You did not do a good job on the presentation today.”

Using the word “but” negates constructive feedback because it leaves people believing the opposite of whatever came before the word “but.”

Here are a few more examples:

PhraseWhat others hear
“I agree, but I think it is time we do something about it.”You don’t agree. You don’t care what I think. You just want me to do what you want. 
“This chicken is good but remember that dinner you made last week?”You think the chicken is bad and you aren’t enjoying the meal I just cooked.
“You really helped me but now I have to get back to work.”I didn’t help you at all. 
“Come on, I was joking, but maybe we should think about this again.”You weren’t joking. You are trying to placate me. 

Back to the first two examples. Let’s try this to help people believe you and trust your feedback:

  • “I like that sweater. I also really like the red one.”
  • “You did a great job on that presentation. There are parts that could have been shorter.”

What changed? Would you be more inclined to trust this person’s feedback?

Providing details can also help clarify intentions and build trust:

  • “I like that sweater. It fits well and the colors look good on you. I also really like the red one for the same reasons.”
  • “You did a great job on that presentation. Your points were clear and your handouts provided just the right amount of information. I think the discussion on the budget could have been a bit shorter. I’m happy to talk about how you might make adjustments in the future if you like.”

Words matter! The words you choose, how you use them and the order in which you place them, have an impact on how they are heard. Slow down. Pay attention to what you are trying to convey, how it will be received and what will be most helpful to the recipient.  

Some tips:

  • Be specific. What was said, done, or observed that you want to speak about?
  • Remove the word “but.” Either:
    • Substituting the word “and.” This is a great transition from using the word ‘but’ to truly eliminating it as a conjunction. However, people may still sense you are trying to avoid using the word ‘but’ so be thoughtful of tone. 
    • Substituting a period. Close the sentence and start a new one – eliminating the word ‘but’ all together!

I hope intentionally eliminating the word “but” from your daily speech will help people better hear your intention and trust what you say.

By Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds, University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office

1 thought on “But… Don’t Say It!”

  1. Pingback: Actually, maybe you should reconsider saying “Actually” – Ombuzz

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