I'm reading Robinson Crusoe and came across many of these constructions with "but" in it. I can't help but thought they were a little unusual. I don't consider myself fluent in English, that's why I ask.

Here is an example:

This I saw no remedy for but by making an enclosure about it with a hedge; which I did with a great deal of toil, and more, because it required speed.

Second one:

However, as my arable land was but small, suited to my crop, I got it totally well fenced in about three weeks' time;

By typing the second out I figured it is actually the normal textbook case of "but", just an, in my opinion, screwed ordering in the sentence. Is this what it means?

However, as my arable land was suited to my crop but small, I got it totally well fenced in about three weeks time;

Why did the author do this? Can you comment on the first sentence too? It's not a textbook-but-usage as I see it.

  • You've got it exactly backwards. Actually it's the first sentence that's a perfect textbook case, and it's the second one that's more peculiar (it only seems as the textbook case to you because you "tranlated" it that way, but your translation is wrong). At any rate, as others have pointed out, both meanings are easily found in a dictionary. You should also have a look at our sister site specifically for English Language Learners.
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 24 '13 at 15:31

The first one means except for. The second one means only. Surely this is in the dictionary.

  • Yes, for example in Collins COBUILD: "(5) But is used to mean 'except'" and "(6) But is used to mean 'only' [FORMAL]" . Another example of the only meaning of but is 'Tis but a scratch said by the Black Knight in Monty Python's 'Holy Grail'. Feb 23 '13 at 21:51

400 years ago English was quite different. Defoe published Robinson Crusoe a year before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, for comparison.

One of the things about the conjunction but is that it presupposes some surprise; i.e, there is always some expectation the speaker would normally make that is contradicted by the facts that follow but.

  • He's very smart, but not about social things. (presupposing consistency of intelligence)
  • It's sposta be here by 11, but it's late today. (presupposing normal schedule)

This comes from the earlier use of but to mean only, a negative trigger, in the second example.

  • my arable land was but small, suited to my crop

Nowadays this use is rare, but 400 years ago it was apparently quite common, at least in writing. In Modern English we'd most likely float the only, and use but just to mark the presupposition that more arable land was needed:

  • my only arable land was small, but [it was] suited to [the (small) size of] my crop

That's the second example. The first example is a Nobbut-Cleft. Consider what he could have said, but didn't:

  • I solved the problem by making an enclosure with a hedge.

Commendably clear, but not cool (using 17th-century notions of what's cool). So he expands on it by clefting it. This is a Cleft sentence:

  • The only way I could see to do it was by making an enclosure with a hedge.

Note the was -- Cleft sentences often insert some form of be or some other There-Insertable verb as the fulcrum for the cleavage, then isolate the topic before the be and the comment after it.

This is a Pseudo-Cleft (or Wh-Cleft) sentence, which also inserts be and marks the topic with a Wh-word:

  • What I did about it was (to) make an enclosure with a hedge.

There are other varieties of clefting in English, and the Nobbut-Cleft is one:

  • There remains no more but to thank you for your courteous attention.

There is always a negation in the clause preceding but, and the but clause illustrates an exception to the negation.

The third example does not appear to represent what Defoe meant in the second example, so I won't treat it here, except to say that it is indeed, grammatical, though it doesn't make sense in context.

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