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Seth Slater M.F.A.
Seth Slater M.F.A.

Linguistic Make-Over: 'And' Versus 'But'

Can word choice block our messages?

Shakespeare had it right when he said that a rose by any other name smells as sweet. And yet, in recent years a host of good communicators - psychologists and business folk among them - have warned against use of the word "but", insisting that if we rename the rose, so to speak, our messages will sound sweeter to the listener.

BUT, why throw out a perfectly useful word, when all it really needs is a cognitive association dust-off? Although they may be more subtle than a host of others, words are stimuli - and they provoke responses.

When an infant's grasping hand takes an exploratory tug at a parent's face or hair, the behavior is not long tolerated before the parent delivers an emphatic "No!" - usually along with an accompanying swat to the infant's hand. The child has just gained its first experience of punishment. In time, the infant develops a behavioral response to the stimulus "No" - it will withdraw its hand - and will no longer require swatting. Through associative learning, the word "No" itself becomes punishing over time.

BUT having learned the punishing properties of "No" makes a child safer by far. Armed with a punishing word, watchful caretakers can effectively protect from a distance by the time the infant has learned to crawl. Curious about that light socket? "No!" Carpet tack looking yummy? "No!" Want to pet strange furry thing with large teeth? "No!"

As small, base linguistic units go, "No" is a pretty handy morpheme to keep around. Regardless of culture, it's not by accident that "No" (or its foreign language equivalent) is the first word most infants learn - AND tire of.

AND therein lies the rub. Just as young children tire of hearing "No", adults have grown weary of "but". Or at least, that is the claim many linguistically minded sorts have put forth for dumping "but" in favor of "and".

Ever careful about setting off unwanted chain reactions, psychologists, political advisors, and business folk in particular warn that the word "but" should be avoided at all costs. It is likely, they say, that "but" will get a listener's back up AND block a well-intentioned message from being heard.

While there's a strand of truth buried in that view somewhere, the essence of the problem lies just beneath the articulated surface.

Enter the dolphin, stage left, to plumb the depths of psychological nuance.

Any trained dolphin knows to listen for the sound of its trainer's whistle. Why? Because the whistle signals that something tasty - usually a raw fish or squid - is about to fly through the air as payoff for a job well done. If you blow a whistle anywhere in the neighborhood of a trained dolphin, it will likely interrupt whatever it's doing, turn your way, and open its mouth wide as if to say, "Glad you enjoyed that. Where's my fish?"

Try the same thing with a wild dolphin, and you'll get no response at all. That's because meaning isn't inherent in the whistle itself. To a dolphin, the whistle acquires meaning over time only through consistent association with whatever follows its sound. Strike a dolphin with a stick immediately after tooting a training whistle, and it won't be long before the dolphin learns to flee upon hearing it.

These are exactly the kinds of associative reactions a linguistic species like ours has to words. It doesn't matter what the word is. What matters is what the word is associated with. Show a toddler an apple enough times while calling it a rain coat, and he'll ask for foul weather gear whenever it's snack time.

Even sugary-sweet terms of endearment like "honey" can go sour over time - depending, of course, on the types of associations that immediately follow. Repeat "Honey, I love you" often enough, and your mate will be greeting you with open arms and a smile after hearing the very first word. Repeat and replace with "Honey, why can't you ever . . ." and the verbal brawling will begin just as quickly.

So is the contest really a question of "and" versus "but"? Probably not. "I hear what you're saying AND I have to strongly disagree" probably isn't more diplomatic than "I hear what you're saying, BUT maybe we can arrive at a compromise." In fact, given a choice between the two, most good communicators would opt for the latter.

It would take a lot of linguistic gymnastics to purge our vocabularies of a useful little word like "but". Is there an alternative to ditching it?

BUT of course.

By now you've certainly noticed the frequent appearance of both "and" and "but" in capital letters throughout this post. That's for ease of reference in case you'd care to double check. "But" has been used four times in association with sentences that deal with benefits or solutions while "and" has been used the same number of times in connection with drawbacks, concerns, or cautions. No need to kill any three-letter messengers as long as we pay attention to the associative messages they deliver. If a rose by any other name smells as sweet, then perhaps, forsooth, you can have it - at least linguistically - as you like it.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2011

About the Author
Seth Slater M.F.A.

Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.

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