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Every now and then I stumble about a construction like this:

It was but something....

and I understand it to be

It was nothing but....


It was only...

depending on the context.

I do know what this "but" means and I do know what else "but" can mean. My question is this?

Is the a difference between "but" and "nothing but" in this context, be it ever so small and hidden in tone or emphasis? Is there such a difference between "but" and "only"? And finally is "but" in this context something you can say or does that make you sound way out there? Thanks a lot

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sorry I did search before I posted and stackexchange did not show one of these... I'll read and possible delete the question – Emanuel Apr 26 '12 at 11:56
ok I read them... I do know what it means... I want to know whether there is a small difference in tone or meaning or emphasis so I stand by my question :) – Emanuel Apr 26 '12 at 12:01
You don't just "stand by". Please edit the question accordingly. Responders will see the Q., not these comments. – Kris Apr 26 '12 at 12:28
true... I did. I hope it is clear enough know what I am going for. – Emanuel Apr 26 '12 at 12:47
up vote 3 down vote accepted

They all mean the same thing, as you note. However:

  1. Nothing but implies that the subject (*it) was more overblown than with the lone but, hence the nothing.

  2. There is no great difference in meaning between but and only. The NOAD defines but (adv.) as "no more than; only," while defining only (adv.) as "and no one or nothing more besides; solely or exclusively."

  3. But is older and/or more poetic; you might get funny stares if you use it in normal speech. For this reason you would normally use only.

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