Commas and Contrasted Elements "But"


Please explain contrasted elements and the use of a comma before the word “but." I understand the use when there are two independent clauses, but I’m having difficulty otherwise. The Elements of Style (Fourth Edition) explains on page 5 that “When the subject is the same for both clauses and is expressed only once, a comma is useful if the connective is but. . . . I have heard the arguments, but am still unconvinced.” My old faithful Harbrace College Handbook (Twelfth Edition) explains on pages 136 and 137 that “contrasted elements . . .  are set off by commas. . . . Usage is divided regarding the placement of a comma before but in such structures as the following: Other citizens who disagree with me base their disagreement, not on facts different from the ones I know, but on a different set of values.” Lastly, on I’m told that “when the elements are contrasting, a comma is necessary to notate the contrast. . . . She was happy most of the day, but sad by the end of it. . . . the part of the sentence that comes after the comma contrasts the part that comes before it. Yet, both parts are essential to convey the intended meaning.” On page 152 of The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need, “but” is listed as a transition word “useful for showing contrast.” To me, the very nature of the word “but” connotes contrast. I’m finding myself wanting to place a comma before every “but.”

Thank you.

commas contrast But edited Apr 20 at 20:28 BC New member

3 answers


You may have proven your own point. All of your examples had commas. If you can find examples without commas, then you would have an exception, at least.


Here's one I found.

I would go for a walk but for the rain.

Here, it means except, rather than being used as a conjunction. Follow the link below.


Here's a link.

link edited Apr 20 at 23:56 Lewis Neidhardt Grammarly Fellow

Thank you, Lewis, but I don’t understand how I may have proven my point. All of the cited examples have commas, but they are followed by dependent clauses. I had read the information at the link you provided before I asked, but that told me that I should only use a comma between independent clauses. I thought I understood what you were saying until you provided the link. Would you please explain if the link is correct with regards to contrasted elements. Thanks.

BCApr 21 at 00:34

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Commas after coordinating conjunctions in general and after but in particular are largely a matter of style. As CGEL says (p. 1739), 'this is an area where we find variation between heavy and light punctuation, the former style including more commas in this position than the latter.' All we have are tendencies. For example, 'punctuational  marking is more likely before a long and complex coordinate than before a short and simple one. Thus, other things being equal, a comma is more likely before a clause than  before a subclausal constituent'; also, 'a comma is somewhat more likely with but... than with and and or' (CGEL, p. 1740).


The likelihood of a comma before but also increases in proportion to how sharp is the contrast expressed by but. For example, the contrast is less sharp when 'but conveys "and" together with some further, non-propositional,  meaning - commonly an adversative meaning such as we find in the connective adverbs nevertheless, however, yet.' So for example,


She was in considerable pain but insisted on chairing the meeting.


can have the following paraphrases:


She was in considerable pain and yet insisted on chairing the meeting.

Although she was in considerable pain she insisted on chairing the meeting. 


Sometimes the implied meaning is moreover:


She likes opera but (she likes) chamber music too.

She likes opera and moreover she likes chamber music too


All of these examples are from CGEL (p. 1311), and not that there is no comma before but. At the same time, they give this example:


Kim hadn't read it, but Pat hadn't either.

Kim hadn't read it, and moreover Pat hadn't either.


CGEL continues:


(begin quote)

Other cases which resist substitution of and + adverb are illustrated in:

[56] i I would have gone, but I was too busy.
       ii You may not believe this/it, but I usually keep the house quite tidy.
     iii I'm sorry but you'll have to do it again.
     iv He said it was your fault, but then he would say that, wouldn't he?


Example [i] illustrates the preventative use of but: the situation expressed in the second coordinate prevents the realisation of the one hypothetically entertained in the first - my being too busy prevented my going (compare the remote conditional construction I would have gone if I had not been too busy). In [ii], the first coordinate contains a pronoun anaphoric to the second: this/it is interpreted as "that I usually keep the house quite tidy". We call this anticipatory anaphora: the pronoun precedes its antecedent. This kind of anaphora is sanctioned by but, but not and (Ch. 17, §2.4). Example [iii] is similar except that the anaphoric relation is implicit: we understand "sorry to say this" or the like. But then in [iv] is idiomatic: it is used to indicate that what precedes is not surprising.

(end quote)


In these cases, a comma is more likely---three out of four of the examples had it.

link edited Apr 22 at 18:55 linguisticturn Expert

Thank you. This helps.

BCApr 23 at 12:25

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In addition to what I said in my other answer to your question, let me point out that, contrary to what you said in your comment to Lewis, none of your examples involve but joining a dependent clause. Let's consider them in turn.


[1] I have heard the arguments, but am still unconvinced.


Here we have coordination of verb phrases (VPs). You may know it better under the name 'compund predicate' (see e.g. the third example here).


[2] Other citizens who disagree with me base their disagreement, not on facts different from the ones I know, but on a different set of values.


This is coordination of preposition phrases (PPs).


[3] She was happy most of the day, but sad by the end of it.


This is (probably) an instance of what CGEL calls 'right nonce-constituent coordination' (pp. 1341-1343). The characteristic properties of it are that the coordinated sequences are not constituents in the corresponding 'basic' coordination (which would be She was happy most of the day, but she was sad by the end of it), and that they exhibit parallel structure, here predicative complement+adjunct of time.

link edited Apr 23 at 03:02 linguisticturn Expert


BCApr 23 at 12:26

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