What is the difference between these phrases? When is it valid to use which? Should they be avoided as being ambiguous?
Nothing but A
Means only A. You don't want anything else.
Anything but A
Means that you don't want A. You could have B or C, or maybe even both B and C (and even E if someone offers) - but NOT A!
Everything but A
Means that A is the only thing you don't want. You do want the rest of the entire alphabet - but NOT A!
"Nothing but" means only:
"Anything but" means any one thing except whatever follows but:
"Everything but" means everything excepting whatever follows but:
But here means except.
means I do not want to have any food except chocolate.
means I can eat all kinds of food except chocolate.
means I am going to have all the food in front of me except the chocolate.
"I wanted everything but that" means "I really didn't want that at all". So, unlike "all but" which means "almost", "everything but" means "very far from".
Nice to see I'm not the only one pondering this. The above answers do sum up the most frequent usages, but I would like to propose an addendum concerning the ambiguity of the phrases, which, for me, was the core of the question:
"Anything but" may sometimes also be used in a way that is closer in meaning to "nothing but", mainly when posed as a rhetorical question, as in:
"How can B mean anything but A?" — implying that B means A, and only A.
This does not call for avoidance of the phrase, however, as the intended meaning can, more or less, be easily understood from the context of its use. Give readers/listeners some linguistic credit.
protected by tchrist Aug 13 '14 at 14:30
Thank you for your interest in this question.
Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.
Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?