[This started off as a teaching post. But life has made it something much more.]
Of all the FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So), none is more fundamental to writing, reading, listening, and simply living than “but.” In fact, the hope of humanity and the salvation of our souls might well rest on our understanding and mastering the use of this coordinating conjunction.
You might be thinking, “But surely you are overstating it.” Or you may disagree: “But,” you will say, and then state your counterargument.
And I will respond, “Case closed. But I respect and appreciate your adding to the conversation.” #seewhatIdidthere?
But is fundamental. When we write (from brainstorming to revising), when we read or listen, and when we live—which is, I’m fairly convinced, pretty much always—we will be better off if we harness the power of but.
The fact that it also is a humorous homonym is just a little piece of grace to those of us juvenile to appreciate it.
It all starts at the but.
Without but we would have no literature because without conflict, there is no plot and therefore no story. Rick Wormelli, author and educator, offers a strategy for summarizing fiction, called “Somebody… wanted… but … so.” The but here represents the conflicts that arise and prevent characters from getting what they want or living the way they want to.
Here are a couple of summaries, revised to omit any but. Notice how these movies would never have been made, how conflict is necessary.
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen wanted to avoid anyone close to her having to participate in the Hunger Games, so nobody volunteered and nobody had to participate.
- In Jaws, the people of Amity Island wanted to enjoy some time at the ocean, so they went to the beach and had a lovely day.
Similarly, when I attend professional development and learn about something great I’m supposed to start doing, I want to hear about the challenges I will face, how things are going to go wrong. Because nothing works as well in real life as it does in a meeting room. Give me the but scenario so I can think about how I’ll be adapting it to the variables of my situation.
And when I am listening to a sermon, it usually only becomes a truly meaningful message once it gets to some kind of but. Consider the difference between the two following claims:
- “God loves you, and…”
- “God loves you, but…”
Which one piques your curiosity more? Which one is more likely to challenge you to grow?
I had students write argumentative essays last year. I had them practice on the issue of bullying. Not surprisingly, I got essays that sought to argue some version of the following claim: Bullying should be stopped. They wrote that it was mean, that it shouldn’t happen, that bullies should be punished. What they lacked was deeper understanding of the issue’s challenges:
- But how can we really stop it?
- But how do we actually define bullying?
- But what happens to those we label as bullies?
Students who explored those questions and sought to address them would have much greater understanding, would write better essays, would be in a position to change the world. Those who didn’t simply mouthed platitudes.
But that is unfortunately understandable because we live in a world of “talking heads” who occasionally get paid to do just the same thing.
We can find depth with the but.
The students who wrote those essays struggled to write anything remotely essay-length. They complained they didn’t have anything to say, although it was more true to say they didn’t feel they had anything obvious or meaningful to say. They were merely passing on what they heard or knew to be true. As a teacher, I need to do more to help them think: to see exceptions, to anticipate the conflict of unintended consequences, to understand the need for clarification.
But this condition isn’t limited to eighth graders.
Many of our pundits and politicians need the same thing. Many of us, politically speaking, need it, too. If we as a nation ever hope to progress or solve even some of the relatively easier challenges facing us, we need more of the understanding that comes with but.
No matter how opposed to guns you are, it is at least necessary to spend some time thinking about a question like, “But how can we take guns from those who already legally own them and see them as a constitutional right to their personal protection?”
No matter how opposed to any sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants you are, you should have a reasonable answer for the question, “But how do we logistically and humanely deport all those who are already here and have been for a very long time?”
Two millennia ago, Jesus created quite a stir, in part because He came with the kind of clarification and redefinition that is possible with but. He said things like, “You know you’re not supposed to murder, but if you hate somebody, it’s basically the same thing.” He was also able to address uncomfortable truth: life sucks, but I overcame this life and death.
Politically, religiously, and socially, we are comfortable before the but. We’d rather not confront what comes after the but. We prefer:
- “I haven’t murdered anybody.”
- “The law must be followed.”
- “We must protect the innocent.”
But when we stop there–when we do not understand or seek to be understood–our lives write nothing but pithy, platitude-filled essays.
Please don’t let your two cents all come from your but.
We all know a contrarian, the kind of person who has an issue with every little thing, who sees problems with every possibility, who contradicts every claim. These people are often looking for excuses or maybe a way to get out of a meeting sooner rather than later; they are rarely seeking understanding or solutions.
But is not only oppositional. But is clarification. But is exception. But is truth-seeking, in that it digs deeper in the search for underlying issues and maybe even common ground.
However, but is only the transition: it is up to us what to do with what comes after.
Consider: I have a problem, but it’s not the same as your problem so you don’t know what I’m going through. Or: That’s a possible solution, but nothing is really going to change.
Compared with: I have a problem, but I can still help. I have a problem, but we all struggle and need to help each other. I have a problem, but I still have so much to be thankful for. I have a problem, but at least I understand but.
But should not stop a conversation or stall an issue; but should encourage dialogue and progress towards a more informed solution. But should not divide; but should recognize differences and address them clearly. As readers and writers, parents and children, teachers and students, citizens and leaders, social and religious beings, we can benefit from that habit of mind.
How I plan on using “Yes But No Questions” to help students think more deeply: