While I think we can all agree that novelist Howard Jacobson has a point here about the uses of the word "but", I notice that US blogger Jim Henley made exactly the same point two weeks ago, and somehow managed to do so without also being a dick about it. Saying that, I'm not certain that Howard has chosen particularly representative examples, but he's not just blowing smoke here.
Still, I think we need to add a couple of "buts" of our own to Howard's chucklesome, high-fiving fatwa on the conjunction.
- Perhaps I'm naive, but I assume that there was once a point in time when it wasn't necessary to proclaim that you were not in favour of e.g. murder and mayhem, as the cover price that permitted you to make a point of your own.
I try to just take it for granted that other folk aren't big fans of shooting people and so on and then allow the conversation to prove me either right or wrong, but I concede that this isn't universal. Maybe it doesn't strike anyone else as strange that in order to state that, for instance, bombing and occupying other countries is usually a bad idea, so many people require you to also announce that you do not think flying planes into skyscrapers is nice.
I could be wrong here and actually, it's been ever thus. Perhaps our cavemen ancestors used to sit around fires on cold winter nights, accusing each other of being overly soft on Neanderthals or demanding lengthy and specific condemnations of sabre-toothed tigers.
Nonetheless though, I'm fairly convinced that this is a more recent phenomenon, only sharpened by certain events at the start of the 21st century, and that we're no better off for it*.
- And non-coincidentally, there's a use of the word "but" that Howard himself rarely uses in political contexts, and it goes like this -
"I agree with you, but"...
For those who aren't familiar with the construction, this is how people indicate that they concur with points being made and would like to add further points for equal or advisory consideration.
In order to make use of this form of "but" however, it's first necessary to consider the possibility that your interlocutor may be reasonable, honest and humane.
So it's easy to see why Howard finds the word so vexing. To put it politely, it's noticeable that he isn't often troubled by such considerations or, indeed, any discernable doubts about his own certainties at all.
- And let's end by noting that this is roughly the eight-hundredth post-Paris killings political column to screech, wave its arms around and call down the vengeance of Heaven upon people who say that cartoonists deserve to be shot, while containing absolutely no examples of any person saying that cartoonists deserve to be shot.
I think we're now past the point where this kind of behaviour can be charitably considered to be accidental.
*At this point, let me assure you that I'm not in favour of flying planes into skyscrapers. Not only do I condemn it, but I execrate and reject it, decry and denounce it, and aver that anyone who does such things must be very, very evil in the head.