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I just noticed I tend to use "but" and 'however" in almost every paragraph.

Examples (all of them are from the same story):

I almost let everything out. But, funny, I didn't. I didn't want him to feel bad. Which made me wonder if maybe I enjoyed punishing myself. But what for?


This was the first time we were going to be apart for so long. Two months wasn't a big deal for most people. But for me, it was an endless torture. But as I stood there, watching the bus disappear down the street, I reminded myself that it wasn't so bad. That we would still see each other on weekends.


Li was holding me from behind. I liked to sit like that—feeling his warmth on my back, and his moist breath on my neck. It made me feel protected, at ease. As though nothing in the world could hurt me. However, that day, something disturbed that feeling.


I wanted to cry. I wanted to shout at him, tell him that I was already here. However, I knew I couldn't protest. It was my fault, after all. I had come too early, and he probably thought I was still in Nantou.

Is their use justifiable? Or should I use something else instead?

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Honestly, I don't see the problem with many of the uses in your example. The first example reads well. In the second I would remove the first "but." The third and fourth read fine. –  Chris Jan 19 at 1:27
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6 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There are many synonyms to but. For the meaning you are pointing out in your question, some of them would be still, nevertheless, nonetheless, though, although, and yet. You can find these and the ones for the other meanings in any site with synonyms lookup function, such as Thesaurus ("but" synonyms).

However, it should be noted that it can be counterproductive to sprinkle your story with synonyms of a common word just for the sake of non-repetition. Just as it happens with the word "said": Many people think you should not abuse of "said" synonyms in dialog tags (see The Use and Abuse of Dialogue Tags, for example), because it "draws [the readers'] attention away from the dialogue and yank them out of the story". Same can happen with but. The abundance of random synonyms might rather obstruct the reading experience.

If you want to show two ideas are opposed, there can be workarounds, thinking outside the box. Some times these ideas are not inherently opposed (in your first example, "Funny enough, I didn't"); some other times, the causal relationship can be implied (in your fourth example, just removing it would keep the meaning: "As I stood there..."); and some other times, it can be necessary (the rest of your examples fall in this category, in my opinion).

To finish, a workaround example, one that I don't pretend to be substitutive nor better, just to explain the idea:

I wanted to cry. I wanted to shout at him, tell him that I was already here. As I opened my mouth, I realized I couldn't protest. It was my fault, after all.

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Honestly, I don't see the problem with many of the uses in your example. The first example reads well. In the second I would remove the first "but." The third and fourth sound fine to my ears.

I second the advice that too much variety is potentially more distracting than the repetition.

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But is a conjunction that has a specific place and a specific meaning. It strikes me that your issue isn't so much with overusing the word "but" but* with using repetitive sentence structure. Please note, for instance, that you really, really aren't supposed to start a sentence with a conjunction because the whole point of a conjunction is to link two items together "I like coffee and tea." "I like coffee but I don't like tea." "I would like coffee or tea."

That isn't to say that you can't ever break this rule, but as with all grammatical rules, there are consequences. I think the primary consequence of breaking the "no conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence" rule is that it looks like you or your character finished a thought and then remembered they wanted to add something else. If you use it all the time, well... your viewpoint will sound like they're very, very confused. If that's what you're going for, don't worry about the overuse of "but" at all. If you're looking for normal, free-flowing prose, at least consider grammar.

*Note: I just typed but but.

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Like Chris I don't see a problem and would only have deleted the first "but" in the second text snippet.

You must understand that "but" is something like the 23rd most frequent word in English (http://www.wordfrequency.info/free.asp?s=y). It would be uncommon, if it did not appear often.

If you want, you can use this online service to calculate word frequencies for your own text: http://darylkinsman.ca/tools/wordfreq.shtml I just input my last novel and found that "but" was the 23rd most frequent word with 316 instances (of 50038) at 0.6%. If an analysis of your test shows significantly higher percentages (maybe more than 1%), you can start to worry.

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You asked

What can I use instead of “but” and “however”?

Without further ado, here are the possibilities.

OTOH, on the contrary, otherwise, yet, even though, though ... still, rather, unexpectedly, despite, in spite of, ...

  1. He is a good hire. I love his honesty, but his honesty could lead us into trouble.
  2. We should hire him. I love his honesty. On the other hand, his honesty could lead us into trouble.

  1. The new medicine is giving people a lot of hope, but it is dangerous hope as it is not well tested yet.
  2. I do not agree with the new medicine that is giving people a lot of hope. On the contrary, I feel it is dangerous as it is not well tested yet.

  1. The govt is not interested in people becoming rich, but they would want you to pay your taxes.
  2. The govt is not interested in people becoming rich. Rather, they would want you to pay your taxes.

  1. The sky was clear and the weather was mild, but then it there was a thunderstorm and it started to rain.
  2. The sky was clear and the weather was mild. Unexpectedly, there was a thunderstorm and it started to rain.

  1. She was born with debilitating condition, but she was successful in becoming a doctor.
  2. Even though she was born with debilitating condition, she was successful in becoming a doctor.
  3. Though she was born with debilitating condition, she was successful in becoming a doctor still.
  4. She was born with debilitating condition, yet she was successful in becoming a doctor.
  5. She persevered towards her success in becoming a doctor, otherwise she would have wallowed in her congenital debilitating condition.
  6. She persevered towards her success in becoming a doctor, despite her congenital debilitating condition.
  7. In spite of her being born with a debilitating condition, she was successful in becoming a doctor.
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In addition to the other good answers, "but ..." is a negation or restriction of the thing or condition it refers to. It "takes away" from it. It also breaks the flow of thought/action (which is fine when it's on purpose.)

Many people use this in speech and writing all the time as a matter of habit, even when it's not really necessary or appropriate. A lot of the time two ideas are just in sequence and could simply be stated or even joined with "and".

Your second example shows both (as possibilities - not as I'm right/you're wrong!)

For me, it was an endless torture. As I stood there, watching the bus disappear down the street, I reminded myself that it wasn't so bad.

For me, it was an endless torture and as I stood there, watching the bus disappear down the street, I reminded myself that it wasn't so bad.

There's a whole study called Conscious Languaging which teaches people to reduce or eliminate such usages because it can be a form of self sabotage.

On the flip side of this, using "but" can help convey uncertainty, hesitation, low self esteem, or intentional negating of the subject.

Garrison Keillor (in his A Prairie Home Companion radio show) uses this to great effect with his Norwegian bachelor farmers' "Yuh,but ...", where they have a reason why almost anything good won't work out - which serves mainly as a reflection on their state of mind rather than on the subject itself.

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