But I can’t help it…

But it's not just me. People you've heard of also like it.

My greatest, most heinous crime, according to Word’s spellchecker, is starting sentences with the word “but”.

I’ve been proof reading the latest draft (Final draft? Ha ha ha. Hysterical laughter. Who knows. Could Be.) of my novel Blackwatertown. The spell checker does not like my colloquialisms, Ulster dialect vocabulary or my “ands”. We argue most frequently over my tendency to start sentences with “but”. The thing is, sometimes “however” just doesn’t cut it.

Doesn’t – that’s (or should I say, that is) another thing it hates. Abbreviations. To which I answer: Can’t stop. Won’t stop.

What does “but” signify? Excitement, surprise, radical change, a hairpin bend, a switchback, a light step, confusion, uncertainty, drama.

“However”, m’lud,  speaks of the stilted stentorian speechifying of the courtroom. It’s – sorry – it is studied, predictable, predicted, slow-moving, ponderous.

Moe: Hello, Moe’s Travern- birthplace of the Rob Roy.
Bart: Is Seymour there? Last name, Butts.
Moe: Just a sec. (calling out) Hey, is there a Butts here? Seymour Butts? Hey, everybody, I wanna Seymour Butts.
Moe (catching on): Hey, wait a minute. Listen, you little scum-sucking pus-bucket. When I get my hands on you, I’m gonna pull out your eyeballs with a corkscrew.

Anyway, by rights of cultural heritage, I should be ending sentences with but. You know what I mean like but? How would you like that spellchecker?

In Belfast, the word “but” has extra-dictionary duties. It’s standard punctuation to mark the end of a phrase or sentence. It conveys the added message that whatever fact has been conveyed, we all know how little reliance can be placed on official truth. Boiled down to its simplest, you have the phrases “Yes but” and “No but”. It becomes unconscious after a while.

So houl’ yer whisht spellchecker, and let me get on with it.

(Whew. That was difficult. See what I did there? I didn’t start any sentence with “but”. But I’m exhausted now. Know what I mean like but?)



Filed under My Writing

28 responses to “But I can’t help it…

  1. If Joyce wrote in Word rather than just with them, I think his laptop would have shattered the nearest window.

    My spellcheck accepts


    but that’s after the fact.

    I can’t tell you the number of words I have had to ‘Add to Dictionary’.

    I find spellcheck useful for not brain farting in formal correspondence, but that’s about all.

  2. As anyone who’s – who has – ever read anything written by me can plainly see, it’s – it is- obvious I don’t know how to use spell check, and having grown up (and been educated) in Tennessee, proper syntax and rules of grammar are strictly optional. But, (oh yes I did!) I have never been exposed to the convention of the trailing ‘but’. If writing were simply about following all the rules, literature would be relegated to the latest artificial intelligence algorithms. Communicating, however, (yes I did that too!) is a bit more complicated, and lots more fun, but.

  3. ‘But’ is a fine way to begin a sentence. It continues the thought process from a previous one, qualifying everything that comes before it. A great way to create disappointment in a book, by throwing a monkey ranch into the works after the reader is sure that the sentence he had just read is the gospel. I should try this in my comic strip…

  4. Thanks Paul this is fantastic! Believe it or not I was thinking about this photo recently because I had enjoyed it so much I wanted to frame it! But couldn’t find it since seeing it!

    Also, thanks for your recent comments on my blog. Still debating about whether to write up the stag!

  5. And by the way I totally agree with your spellchecker criticisms. It’s a total pain.

  6. I was taught by my grandfather not to begin a sentence with “And”. Naturally, when I started writing I started every other line with “and”. It was my first (and if I’m honest, only) taste of rebellion. And it was intoxicating! But aside from that (goddamn it, now I’m doing it) I prefer to write my characters the way I think. I.e. disorganised and arbitrary.

    As far as spellchecking goes, I employ the unorthdox method of waiting for readers to point out my cock-ups in the comments. Given the sheer number of spelling and grammar Nazis on the net, I consider it a perfectly reasonable strategy.

  7. I’m all dashes and run on sentences – just like the way I talk only I spare the reader the “well, the thing is” that I use to jump start my thoughts.

    Spell check is a device invented by a programmer who had spelling problems but also difficulty with imagination. I still live with Webster’s 2nd at my side. Sorry, I cannot afford the OED and the small version with magnifier drives me nuts. It is a virtual conspiracy to keep my spelling and grammar correct. I also have to use that ancient tome, something called “English Usage.” They throw these things at you in graduate school like throwing out a ring to a drowning man/woman.

  8. ashleythinks

    Pictures say a thousand words.

  9. @ Reudor – That’s what I meant to say. Also, I once flew over an ostrich ranch in a basket hanging from a balloon. (And narrowly avoided landing in a prison.) Monkeys are next on the list.
    @ Violet – That is a real word – in Kyrgyz. It’s also extremely rude. So, apologies to anyone who was offended. That’s the web for you.
    @ exileimaging – Tennessee sounds like a hothouse for creativity. And moonshine.
    @ Comely – Glad to oblige.
    @ Jake – I think you have just invented “cloud spellchecking”. How innovative of you.
    @ samhenry – What I look for in a dictionary is the word “hidalgo”. If hidalgo is there, I’m happy. Otherwise a certain verve and elan is missing.

    • Tennessee is indeed a hotbed of creativity. As for the moonshine, my Uncle Gene gave up his still when he realized marijuana was more profitable.

      • blackwatertown

        I am SO out of date. And pleased there is still some home grown industry happening in these days of globalisation, NAFTA and cheap imports from British Colombia and Mexico.

  10. A, bon, “hidalgo” – le mot juste. Your dictionary evaluation skills sont le non plus ultra.

  11. I love conjunctions at the beginning of sentences. It’s the way I talk and . .well I use ‘and’ to start my sentences all the time. Hope there’s not too much Belfast brogue in you’re book I have trouble understanding Cavaners or is that Cavanites, go find that in your spellchecker (It doesn’t like many Aarabic words either). If the word fits, use it and bugga spellchecker (lots of red underlining going on here!)

    • It sometimes takes me a while to tune into Cork city people, but you can rest assured, Cavan does not feature in the book. It’s mainly counties Monaghan, Tyrone, Armagh & Down – and Belfast.

  12. By the way, in case you need some divine support, I’ve just remembered that a prominant book in the Old Testament (can’t remember which) begins “And the king…” if translated sort-of literally from Hebrew.

  13. OK, this might be just too much, but I’ve had a peruse and 15 books of the Old Testament begin with ‘and’! Granny would approve!

    • You really make me laugh. (And you’re not the only one.)
      So – just had a quick look. Leviticus is the first one of your fifteen.
      But how intriguing it would be if Genesis began with “And”.
      Any biblical but beginnings? Or is that hoping for too much?

      • Ah yeah, pity about Genesis. Regarding ‘but’ it’s actually the same word as ‘and’ in ancient Hebrew, depending on context! These are all ‘ands’ really though, but it serves to illustrate the point. Unfortunately this is mainly irrelevant as we’re concerned with English, but we could just sweep that under the carpet!

  14. It’s not too hard
    To see the Bard
    Always had a “but” or “and”
    Lying ever close at hand…

    This is close to initial word “but.”


    Nay, but this dotage of our general’s O’erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes, That o’er the files and musters of the war Have glow’d like plated Mars, now bend, now turn, The office and devotion of their view Upon a tawny front: his captain’s heart, Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper, And is become the bellows and the fan To cool a gipsy’s lust. [Flourish. Enter ANTONY, CLEOPATRA, her Ladies,] the Train, with Eunuchs fanning her] Look, where they come: Take but good note, and you shall see in him. The triple pillar of the world transform’d Into a strumpet’s fool: behold and see.

    But what know I now in my dotage?
    I read the SUN and other garbage.

  15. PS

    I used to have a little poem I made up to help me remember a good place to start in writing or perhaps in life…

    In Medias Res, Medias Res
    In Medias Res is my favorite place.

    [The way we pronounce the Latin “res” it will rhyme with place.]

  16. Oh, and please not to forget

    Luke 2:9-11 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said ….

  17. blackwatertown

    @ ashleythinks – Ah yes… I only look like that late at night.
    @ Comely & Samhenry & everyone else – It’s all got very erudite. I can’t keep up. On the plus side, I’ve finished the proofreading. So thank you all for your assistance.
    Next, something different.

  18. Wordy one here. I have done more thinking about beginning with “but.” It is part of the conversational flow in which we are immersed daily. But it is also seen more in drama – a form that is practiced by people who can hear conversations in their heads and give them a direction and purpose.

    I really want to write a play called “Papers” about a saga I lived through with academicians and manuscript repositories in academia and etc. vying for them.

    Meanwhile, I was secure in my attic room processing the papers of one of the partners in THE DIAL Magazine of art and literature in the 1920s.
    I enjoyed direct contact with Pound and Eliot (corresponded with Valerie and helped her solve a literary mystery) an Mann (the DIAL Magazine published German fiction when others would not between the wars. It also published the first instance of the Wasteland in America (first published in Britain).

    I imagined them all around talking among themselves as most of them plotted to ask Watson for more money (Watson and Thayer functioned like the National Endowment for the Arts). The
    literary “ghosts” were thrilled to have such a fuss made over their scribblings that they carefully wrote on at least 80% rag paper.

    I was caught up in the politics of it all and it now occurs to me that I should refine this and put it under my new “writings” tab. It’s more interesting than what is out there now. A bientot

  19. Pingback: Reading Digest: Unpossible Edition « Dead Homer Society

  20. Well, no-one spotted the obvious typo in my previous comment. So much for “cloud spellchecking”.

  21. Word is not to be taken in account 100%. On one hand it’s not bad to start a sentence with “but”, I think, but on the other hand it shouldn’t be overused.

    As I read once in a book for writing novels, an author has a selection of many synonyms to choose from. 🙂

    So, I think you don’t have only the two options of “but”, or “however”. I found these on Synonym.com :

    nevertheless, withal, still, yet, all the same, even so, nonetheless, notwithstanding

    But of course, each one has a different meaning.

  22. Val Erde

    Starting a sentence with ‘but’ is preferable to starting one with ‘so’. But, that said…

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