We use but to mean ‘except’ after all, none, every, any, no (and everything,
everybody, nothing, nobody, anywhere etc).
- He eats nothing but hamburgers. Everybody’s here but George.
- I’ve finished all the jobs but one.
Note the expressions next but one, last but two etc (mainly BrE).
- ]ackie lives next door but one. (= two houses from me)
- I was last but two in the race yesterday.
But for expresses the idea ‘if something had not existed/happened’.
- I would have been in real trouble but for your help.
- But for the storm, I would have been home before eight.
Note also the structure who/what should … but (used to talk about surprising appearances, meetings etc).
- I walked out of the station, and who should I see but old Beryl?
- I looked under the bed, and what should I find but the keys I lost last week?
pronouns after but
After but, we usually use object pronouns (me, him etc). Subject pronouns
(i, he etc) are possible in a more formal style before a verb.
- Nobody but her would do a thing like that.
(More formal: Nobody but she … )
verbs after but
The verb form after but usually depends on what came before. Infinitives are normally without to.
- She’s not interested in anything but skiing. (interested in … skiing)
- That child does nothing but watch Tv. (does … watch)
Cannot (help) but + infinitive without to is sometimes used with the meaning of ‘can’t help .. .ing’. Cannot but … is very formal; cannot help
but … is especially common in American English
- .One cannot (help) but admire his courage. (= One has to admire … )
- I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen to us all.
Infinitives with to are used after no alternative/ choice/ option but.
- The train was cancelled, so I had no alternative but to take a taxi.
but meaning ‘only’
In older English, but was used to mean ‘only’, but this is now very unusual.
- She is but a child.