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“But” Gets a Bad Name – But Writers Love Words to Show Contrast

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

The word but gets a bad name in conversation. But in writing, it’s a power word – and one of the best words to show contrast.

Why "but" is a power word with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #WritingTips #PowerWords

First, let me explain what I mean when I say but gets a bad name. 

Let’s say I’m chatting with a friend who says, “That’s a stylish dress, but I’ve never seen that color before.”

Inwardly, I cringe.

My friend admired the dress, but I don’t remember her positive words. Instead, I feel like a freak because I chose a questionable color.

The word but throws cold water on everything that came before it. 

But gets a bad name in conversation because it’s negativity in disguise. 

That goes for your conversations ...

  • In the workplace:“Your sales presentation was great, but did you have to talk about the weather?”
  • With your roommate: “Thanks for loading the dishwasher, but could you turn the forks upright next time?”
  • With your family:“I love you, but you …”

Therapists and workplace gurus have a solution for the but negativity problem. But, they explain, is a conjunction. You use it to connect two ideas. The word but shows contrast by linking a positive idea with a negative one. You can avoid all that negativity by avoiding contrast. Use a different conjunction instead: and.

  • “That’s a stylish dress, and I’ve never seen that color before.”
  • “Your sales presentation was great, and you tied it in with the weather.”
  • “Thanks for loading the dishwasher, and next time could you turn the forks upright, too?”

Do you see how and puts an upbeat spin to your conversation, rather than leading to a downward spiral? By using and instead of but, then both points can be true. You soften your tone.

Sidestepping negativity is great in conversations. Yet there’s a problem with replacing but with and in writing. 

Writers Need For Words to Show Contrast 

If your goal is simply to connect two ideas, just use and where you’d normally write but. However, when you’re writing, is that always what you want to do – just connect one thought to another?  Not when you’re purposefully trying to use words to show contrast. 

Contrast: it’s a cardinal principle in writing. It draws distinctions. Contrast highlights the differences between two objects, two places, two people, two principles, two subjects, two ideas, two viewpoints. Contrast strengthens an argument and persuades a reader to embrace a point of view.

In short, contrast gives clarity. It strengthens your writing. Which gives the word but quite a bit of power.

Why But Is One of the Best Power Words for Writers

If you’re like me, you use the word but intuitively. And with good reason. It’s short. It’s useful. It’s a versatile marker that allows you to pivot easily. 

And … (note the conjunction that connects in agreement rather than contrast) ... it’s flexible. You can easily switch up but with alternatives that also show contrast. Try however, though, instead, and yet. You even can go formal to show contrast by using whereas

That’s why but is a power word. And why I’ll keep using it when I write. I want to highlight distinctions for my readers so they’ll have clarity. 

But when I speak to my husband … well, the fewer buts, the better. Let’s just say I’m grateful for and. And I use it.

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