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Maxim #2 Avoid Using the Word “But” Whenever Possible

“But” may be the most negative word in English.

It’s a conjunction that devalues most every sentiment that employs it. And it does so stealthily.

A conjunction’s job is to connect sentences or clauses. Unlike its cousins such as and, or, and so, but does more than connect: it judges, it criticizes, it undermines. Often we are unaware of the word’s devastating power.

My relationships with other people and my general outlook itself improved when I consciously chose to avoid using but.

The unaware use of the conjunction is problematic in two ways. The first of these ways is well understood. The second, less so.

It’s well understood by managers that in workplace settings such as professional feedback, using but in a sentence can backfire. Most leaders by now understand that using the word negates everything that comes before it.

“Paul, you did a wonderful job with this, but . . .”

Paul suddenly tunes out the appreciation. In fact, the conjunction is so fraught, it actually negates the appreciation. Paul is likely to think the opposite of whatever came before the but.

Yeah But, No But

The difficulty created by using but thoughtlessly in professional situations is not what animates this maxim.

My concern is less with the damage but does to the listener than with the injury it does to me when I utter it thoughtlessly.

I’ve found that the unaware use of but is a habit that injects negativity and defensiveness into my life. It reduces intimacy. It limits my scope. It shrinks my options.

The maxim is designed to make me more aware of what I want to say. Just taking a few milliseconds to consider alternatives to but opens up possibilities. For example:

Instead of: “I really like you, but . . .”

Consider: “I really like you, and . . .”

Instead of: “I can give you the promotion, but first you have to hit your annual targets.”

Consider: “I can give you the promotion as soon as you have hit your annual targets.”

Instead of: “Thanks for the invitation, but I’m too busy.”

Consider: “Thanks for the invitation. I wish I could accept it.”

Instead of: “The presentation was well done, but I don’t think your data is accurate.”

Consider: “The presentation was well done and I’d like to know more about your data.”

But Out

This maxim is most effective when it contradicts the “but habit.”

The maxim helped me stay conscious of the word’s negativity. It’s good to be liberated from the word. My relationships with friends and colleagues became more positive.

With practice, it becomes easier to avoid the word.

In most cases, and is a superior alternative to but. In other cases, you don’t need a conjunction at all. Some sentences and clauses don’t need to be linked.

(Of course, there are times when the word is fine. Don’t work yourself up trying to recast sentences such as “But for your efforts, the project would have failed.”) In the end, it’s less the word than the habitual use of the word that’s the issue.

Try it. Avoid the use of the word “but” whenever possible. See how your outlook shifts when but shows up less often in your speech and writing.


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