Last time it was sentence-initial yet followed by a comma, in a New York Times editorial. This time it’s but, in the editorial “Mr. Obama’s Promise of Transparency” (October 5):

As a senator, President Obama co-sponsored a robust proposal to protect journalists and their sources who rely on confidentiality to reveal abuses, scandals and other inner workings of government agencies. But, White House officials are now proposing deep revisions to a Senate Judiciary Committee bill that weaken protections against forcing reporters to reveal their sources.

In my earlier posting I quoted MWDEU on sentence-initial but:

The only generally expressed warning is not to follow the but with a comma…

The argument is that the force of the but is weakened by the unneeded comma. Such commas are rare in the materials in our files.

It seems to me that in cases like the NYT quote above, the effect of the comma is not to weaken the force of the but, but to indicate a short pause after it and so to throw some emphasis onto it. A colon would be even stronger, but a comma will do the job. The effect is one to be used sparingly, but I don’t see that the comma should be banned here.

5 Responses to “But,”

  1. Jonathan Lundell Says:

    At least in the example sentence, the comma has for me a garden-path effect:

    But, White House officials are now proposing, deep revisions to a Senate Judiciary…

  2. The Ridger Says:

    I hadn’t thought of the garden-pathness but I can see it. For me, too, though the comma strengthens rather that weakens the “but”.

  3. Stan Says:

    Momentary garden-path feeling for me too. If they want to emphasise the contrast, and avoid the kind of miscue that Jonathan reports, why not use however and a comma? Strunkist superstition of initial-however?

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Stan: the prejudice against sentence-initial linking however does stretch back to Strunk (1918) but picked up steam in the following decades and eventually was pushed very hard by Bryan Garner in many publications, including several influential usage dictionaries.

    Meanwhile, usage of this however declined during this period, probably as part of general trends towards “colloquialization” of written English (this however is widely seen as formal), but editing practices (especially in the U.S.) undoubtedly accelerated the decline. Initial however does occur in the pages of the New York Times, but at lower rates than in some other publications.

    Extended discussion here, especially section M.

  5. Stan Says:

    Arnold: Thank you, that’s very informative. I recall reading the but/however ratios of Language Loggers before (in your post on the tyranny of the majority); the news corpora breakdown is an interesting supplement to those figures.

    My own attitude to however has softened considerably. For a while I was quite prejudiced against it, owing to its apparent overuse in Irish news media, where in some cases one initial-however follows another like some kind of tortuous rhetorical pinball. Its perceived formality may be one of the main reasons for its popularity here. Sometimes it seems as though the range of adversative nuances offered by but, yet, (al)though, still, etc. have been all but forgotten by the talking heads.

    Section E of your link reminds me of what Anthony Burgess wrote about the inflation of language: “A ‘colossal’ film can only be bettered by a ’super-colossal’ one; soon the hyperbolic forces ruin all meaning.” (From Language Made Plain.)

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