Monday, February 18, 2013

Expressions with All but, none but, but for etc

You might occasionally come across sentences like these:
  • The party was all but over when we arrived.
  • All but one of the plates were damaged
The expression all but has a couple of different uses, and from what I've seen on language forums, this can give even native speakers some problems, so in this post we'll look at this plus a couple of other expressions with but.

Look at those two sentences again, and select the best meaning for all but:
1.All but one of the plates were damaged
2.The party was all but over when we arrived.

Except for or almost?

These examples are adapted from newspaper stories from The New York Times, The Guardian and The Independent. In this sense, almost can also mean almost all or almost completely. And all except can also mean everything except or everybody except etc.

Exercise 1 - Decide which meaning all but has in these sentences:

almostall except
1.He spent all but the last two years of his life in Manhattan.
2.Nato all but rules out a no-fly zone over the war-torn country.
3.The newspaper has imposed a ban on all but the most essential travel in order to reduce costs.
4.The factories are all but gone but the noise remains.
5.These and all but a handful of other American companies.
6.The internet has all but destroyed the market for films and music.
7.All but one of the writers he mentions is a woman.
8.His name is all but synonymous with Wall Street.
9.It was a term Hollywood all but invented for her.
10.The mayor ordered all but emergency vehicles off the state's highways.
11.Congress seems all but paralyzed when it comes to raising revenue.
12.Hockey news - it's all but over for Smith.
13.She is a feminist in all but name.
14.Apple invitation all but confirms next week's iPhone 5 announcement.
15.He is already running for President in all but name.
Note - sometimes the difference is very small. Show my comment.

A little bit of grammar

Exercise 2 - Look back at those newspaper examples and decide:

1.When all but is followed by a noun, pronoun or number, it means:
2.When all but is followed by a verb, adjective or adverb, it means:

The word - but = except (for)

Exercise 3 - Fill the gaps with words from the box.

all   ·   any   ·   anybody   ·   anywhere   ·   every   ·   everybody   ·   everything
everywhere   ·   last   ·   next   ·   no   ·   nobody   ·   none   ·   not   ·   nothing  
1. She's so greedy. She's eaten but one of the biscuits.
2. He does but play on his PlayStation all day.
3. They live door but one to us. The Joneses live in between us.
4. I looked for my keys but in the right place. My pocket!
5. There's way out of the room but that door over there.
6. Oh no! I would have preferred but him. He's so boring.
7. It was really embarrassing, I came but two in the race.
8. You can sit but here; that's where Aunt Jane's sitting.
9. She's so naughty. She does but what she's told.
10. That's so typical: but you would have thought of something like that.
11. I was the only one there; one person turned up but me!
12. The cinema was packed; row but one was completely full.
13. I've spoken to but Peter. I'll tell him tomorrow.
14. Have a chocolate, you like but the round ones; they're mine!
15. ' but the brave' was a 1965 war film starring Frank Sinatra.

Some examples of but = except (for)

A couple from Shakespeare:
  • Exeunt all but Brutus and Cassius - Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 1
  • Those that are married already - all but one shall live - Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1
  • You are undone, Captain, all but your scarf - All's Well That Ends Well, Act 4 Scene 3
Some common expressions and sayings
  • That's not what I'm saying at all. Anything but. (= the complete opposite)
  • They're married in everything but name.
  • We've got nowhere to go but up / down.
  • The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
  • Everything but the kitchen sink - idiom
And some film and song titles
  • Every Which Way But Loose - 1978 fiim with Clint Eastwood
  • Anywhere but here - film with Susan Sarandon, Natalie Portman
  • Anything but ordinary - song by Avril Lavigne
  • Anything but Down - 1999 single by Sheryl Crow


Pronouns after but

We usually use object pronouns after but, although subject pronouns are sometimes used in more formal style
  • Nobody but him would say a thing like that. - normal
  • Nobody but he would say a thing like that. - formal

Verbs after but

Like except, which usually functions as a preposition, but is occasionally followed by a verb, when it is normally considered to be a conjunction. The form of any verb following but depends on what comes before. Normally we use an infinitive without to, but sometimes we need a gerund:
  • She does nothing but sit around all day. (does ... sit)
  • He doesn't like anything but playing on his computer. (like ... playing)
  • I had no choice but to resign. (the choice ... to resign)
Occasionally we use a subject and verb
  • Not a day goes by but I think of him. that I don't think of him

The expression but for

This is similar to the expression 'if it hadn't been for'. It expresses the idea - 'if something hadn't happened or existed'.
  • We would never have managed but for your help.
    = ... if it hadn't been for your help
  • But for the weather, we would have arrived on time
    = If it hadn't been for the weather, ...

The expression who should ... but

We use this when, by chance, we see or meet someone we weren't expecting to:
  • I was at the football, and who should I see but my old class teacher, Mr Johnson.
  • I was just on my way to work, when who should I bump into but Danny, you know, Danny Sharp.

The idiom there but for the grace of God (go I)

This is said when something bad happens to somebody else and you think it might just have likely happened to you:
  • He lost his job due to the crisis. There but for the grace of God ... .
  • When she saw what had happened to him , she thought ti herself, 'There but for the grace go I'.

The idiom can't (help) but

This is similar to the expression can't help doing, which means you can't stop yourself doing something. Cannot but is very formal, can't help but is quite common in American English.
  • One cannot (help) but question his motives. (formal)
  • You can't help but wonder what he's up to.
  • I can't help wondering what he's up to.

The idiom - all but = almost

Exercise 4 - Complete the sentences with all but plus one of the words in the box

complete   ·   destroyed   ·   disappeared   ·   drowned   ·   finished
married   ·   over   ·   there   ·   unknown  
1. We'd lunch when there was a knock on the door.
2. They've been living together for ages and are .
3. Our troubles were and from that moment things started to improve.
4. The end of her speech was out by the tumultuous applause.
5. Such balmy temperatures in January are .
6. Preparations for the ceremony are now .
7. Over the weekend the snow .
8. I've the report. I just have to dot the i's and cross the t's.
9. Last week's tornado the town.
10. We're . Just another mile or so.

The prepositions - bar and barring = except (for)

We can also use the preposition bar to mean except (for), especially in British English. The related preposition barring suggests something more like unless there is/are

Exercise 5 - Complete the gaps with words from the box.

any   ·   just   ·   none   ·   delays   ·   one   ·   over
minute   ·   result   ·   traffic   ·   two  
1. There's nobody to beat him. He's the best football player in the world, bar .
2. And he scores again! That makes it 4:0. It's surely all bar the shouting now.
3. Every student passed the exam, bar who have to take it again later.
4. All bar of the factories in this town have closed down. It's the only one left now.
5. It's the result we've ever had, bar none.
6. The house is as we bought it, bar a few changes here and there.
7. Oxford city centre is closed to all , bar buses and taxis.
8. bus will take you to the city centre, bar the 23.
9. Barring any traffic we should get there in time for lunch.
10. The new house should be ready next month, barring any last hitches.

Bringing it all together

Exercise 6 - Read through the text then fill each gap with a suitable word.

(1)  but one of my close relatives managed to make it to our wedding, which was great. As for me, I was all but (2)  for the church. My car broke down and but (3)  the best man's mechanical expertise, we'd never have made it on time. It was (4)  but funny at the time, but looking back on it now I can't (5)  but laugh.
Something similar happened to a friend of mine, who had arrived half an hour late for his own wedding and his fiancée had (6)  but given up on him. So I suppose it was a case of 'there but for the (7)  of God', etc.
And who do you think (8)  turn up to the reception uninvited but my ex. Can you imagine? (9)  but her would pull a stunt like that. I all but (10)  her out out the spot. It was so embarrassing. But the reception was amazing. We had decided that (11)  but the best would do, and I have to say that it was the best day of my life, bar (12)  .

When but = only

The word but also used to be used as an adverb to mean only. Here are some examples from early grammar books:
  • In English, there are but two articles, "a" and "the" - A Short Introduction to Grammar - Robert Lowth 1762
  • A simple sentence hath (= has) but one subject - English Grammar - Lindley Murray 1795
  • When the [adjective] contains but one syllable, ... - A Grammar of the English language - William Cobbett 1820 (talking about comparison)
It is now rather literary, but survives in a few set expressions, idioms and songs:
  • I don't think we'll make it on time. Still, we can but try.
  • Peter and Hannah are definitely coming, to name but two.
  • He has but one claim to fame.
  • The mouse that has but one hole is quickly taken. - idiom
  • I Have But One Heart - song

I have But One Heart by Johnny Farrow and Marty Symes

  • I have but one heart, this heart I bring you
  • I have but one heart to share with you
  • I have but one dream that I can cling to
  • You are the one dream I pray comes true



I've relied quite heavily on Practical English Usage Michael Swan (Oxford) for this post.

Idioms at the Free Dictionary

Some examples in context

It's a good idea to see expressions like these used in real life examples. Clicking on any of these links should give you a good idea of how they are used. Note that all but will also bring up things like ...all. But ...

Examples of all but in context

Examples of bar none in context

Examples of all over bar the shouting in context



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