How to use ‘but’


We use but to mean ‘except’ after all, none, every, any, no (and everything,
everybody, nothing, nobody, anywhere

  • 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 butis very formal; cannot help
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.

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