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To say that he went to the gym and did not go to the store, is it OK to say, "He didn't go to the store, but to the gym"?

It seems that this would mean, "He didn't go to the store, but [he didn't go] to the gym," which was not the intended claim.


He did not marry Peggy, but Sue. <-> He married not Peggy but Sue.

He didn't listen to my lecture, but to his iPod. <-> He listened not to my lecture but to his iPod.

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It's certainly okay to use this form, but I think in general it's only suitable for contexts where the first option is in fact the default. That's to say, contexts where not X, but Y effectively means not X, as expected, but Y. –  FumbleFingers Oct 24 '11 at 1:58
By "this form" did you mean "married not X, but Y" or "didn't marry X, but Y." It's the latter that is at issue. –  John P. McCaskey Oct 24 '11 at 2:53
I think there is no meaningful distinction to be made between married not X, but Y and didn't marry X, but Y. They are trivial stylistic variants. In your second sentence above, the inclusion of square-bracketted [he didn't go] makes no sense to me, and if by <-> you mean is not the same as then I think you are simply mistaken. –  FumbleFingers Oct 24 '11 at 3:05
By <-> I just meant "Compare these two." But yes, I do think there is a difference. And the brackets were just the unstated parts that are needed to parse/diagram the sentence. In other words, because the negation is in the verb phrase, I do not see why its scope would not extend over both disjunctions, going to the store and going to the gym. –  John P. McCaskey Oct 24 '11 at 3:18
@FumbleFingers. The murderer was not a man, but a woman! –  Sam Oct 24 '11 at 6:31
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4 Answers

I think the OED’s definition 23 of but might cover it:

As adversative conjunction, appending a statement contrary to, or incompatible with, one that is negatived: On the contrary. = German sondern.

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Ah yes. "In a compound sentence, connecting the two co-ordinate members; or introducing an independent sentence connected in sense, though not in form, with the preceding. In a compound sentence the second member is often greatly contracted, as in ‘Thou hast not lied unto men, but (thou hast lied) unto God’." This is my case. What follows the comma (why it is there?) is a greatly contracted clause connected in sense but differing in form from the preceding. And sure enough, OED added the parenthetical. –  John P. McCaskey Oct 24 '11 at 13:09
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It is perfectly valid. The use of 'but' indicates a contrast between clauses. If you were using 'and' then your assesment of the literal meaning would be correct, but 'but' creates a situation where the meaning of the second part of the sentence is understood to be the opposite of the first part.

From the link below:

To suggest in an affirmative sense what the first part of the sentence implied in a negative way (sometimes replaced by on the contrary): "The club never invested foolishly, but used the services of a sage investment counselor."


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This case is different. The subject is The club. It is followed by two predicates -- never invested foolishly, used the services of a counselor -- separated by the conjunction but. That's a fine construction of two predicates sharing one subject. There is a little ambiguity about the scope of the negation, I guess, but there is at least one reading that presents no problem. (BTW, the comma should not be in there.) –  John P. McCaskey Oct 24 '11 at 12:58
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up vote 2 down vote accepted

Thanks to Barry England and OED, I see what is going on.

The construction is not a compound object or even a compound predicate. It is a compound sentence. That's why there is and rightly should be a comma before "but." And that's why rules for parsing compound objects and compound predicates don't apply.

What comes before the ", but" is a complete independent clause. What comes after the ", but" is also an independent clause but a highly contracted one. The reader is left to supply the missing pieces, using as clues the sense, the indication provided by the adversarial conjunction, case, gender, and any other words the author has supplied.

Joe didn't marry Peggy, but Sue.

From word order and knowing what we do about marriage, we supply the missing parts and understand this compound sentence:

Joe didn't marry Peggy, but (Joe did marry) Sue.

OED has this example:

Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.

and expands it to:

Thou hast not lied unto men, but (thou hast lied) unto God.

The "unto" helps. This:

Peter didn't invite Paul, but John.

might slow us down, but we can read through this without hesitation:

Peter didn't invite him, but her.

It makes sense that in Latin, a highly inflected language, this construction is more common than in English.

So the construction is as valid as any other contracted construction and, like other contracted constructions, is most effective when the chance for ambiguity is not significant and a little mental work, but not much, is required from the reader.

Bad idea:

Bob didn't call Joe today, so Tom didn't send the report to Frank, but Mary.

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Also note that this ellipsis works only with negative statements in the first part (and positives in the second: therefore it should not be possible to misinterpret it) –  Unreason Oct 24 '11 at 16:36
Also, for what it's worth, "Joe didn't marry Peggy, but Sue" may also be written "Joe married not Peggy but Sue". –  ShreevatsaR Oct 26 '11 at 18:45
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I think the sentence is awkward. I think it certainly communicates the intention, but it grates a little. The use of "but" indicates a contrast between the first and second choice of destination which is why we understand the meaning, but the sentence is practically begging for the word "instead" at the end.

For sure, even with instead at the end, it would be much better phrased differently. Such as:

He didn't go to the store, instead he went to the gym.
He went to the gym instead of the store.
Instead of the store he went to the gym.

And so forth.

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My question is one of grammar. I certainly understand the intention of "He didn't go to the store, but to the gym" and I would even use the construction in conversation. But I think its literal meaning is not the intended one. Is it? I wonder if your addition of "instead" changes how the sentence would be parsed. –  John P. McCaskey Oct 24 '11 at 3:07
This construction [subject] [verb phrase] [1st predicate object] [conjunction] [2nd predicate object] is a short way of saying [subject] [verb phrase] [1st predicate object] [conjunction] [subject] [verb phrase] [2nd predicate object] If that rule applies, then [he] [did not marry] [Peggy] [but] [Sue] means the same as [he] [did not marry] [Peggy] [but] [he] [did not marry] [Sue] Why would that rule not apply? –  John P. McCaskey Oct 24 '11 at 3:35
@JohnP.McCaskey: Where did you get that rule from? It's obviously not a valid rule in general, since it doesn't apply here. –  ShreevatsaR Oct 24 '11 at 7:17
@JohnP.McCaskey The thing is that when there is an ellipsis, as there is here, you need to use intelligence and the context to work out what the ellipsis is. It is not really a grammatical thing, it is more at the level of semantics. The use of a contrasting conjunction tells us that the part on the left does not match the part on the right. –  Fraser Orr Oct 24 '11 at 16:09
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