Does 'but for' mean:

'If we had X (but we didn't), Y would have been the consequence'?

Or can it also mean; because we had X, as a result Y happened?

Some different examples of but for:

(Case 1)

But for a cup coffee, it was to be a productive day of writing. Unfortunately, I'd run out, and spent the day craving.

(Case 2)

But for the glass of wine I had dinner, the house work didn't get done.

(Case 3)

But for the glass of wine I had for dinner, I would have got the house work done

What is the correct usage of "but for"?

  • 1
    Please feel free to edit if you feel this question can be improved. – dwjohnston Nov 17 '13 at 6:15
  • To poop with, of course! – David Schwartz Nov 17 '13 at 7:59

The preposition But for x be expanded as:

if x had not existed or if x had not happened

This makes but for the equivalent of the third (remote) conditional where the main clause contains the would have construction. On this basis your third case is correct:

But for (If I hadn't drunk) the glass of wine I had for dinner, I would have got the house work done.

A related sense of but for is with the exception of:

But for (with the exception of) the wine, everything about the meal was perfect.

Neither of the above senses of but for works in your case 1 and 2 sentences.


But for often means ‘If it hadn’t been for’. That is the case with 'But for the glass of wine I had for dinner, I would have got the house work done.' If you make a similar substitution with the other two sentences, they make no more sense than they do with but for.

  • It wouldn't make sense for the first case. 'If it hadn't been for a cup of coffee, it was to be a productive day'. – dwjohnston Nov 17 '13 at 7:23
  • Yes, that's what I said. – Barrie England Nov 17 '13 at 7:41

A question appeared in UG examination of English language in these words: Rewrite the following conditional sentence using preposition " but" in the new sentence having same sense: "If you you had not helped me, I would not have got success." The question posed a difficulty not only to the students but some faculty also. The correct rewritten sentence is: "But for your help, I would not have got success."

  • How is your answer different from other answers? – user140086 Nov 23 '16 at 10:26

When you use 'But for sth', it basically means that 'if sth didn't exist or without sth'. (This phrase, but for appeared on my test just about a few days ago, and I did it right as my teacher told me the answer.)

Example: But for the good cooperation, our teamwork would not have been successful.

  • True, Pisey, but this answer has already been given. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 2 '19 at 16:37

'But for something had happened' means if the thing had not happened. For example:- But for your help I would not have managed. It means that- If you had not helped me I would not have managed.

  • 1
    I'm having trouble seeing how this adds anything new and useful to the accepted answer and the other two answers that already appear on this page. Can you explain? – Sven Yargs Jun 21 '17 at 18:27

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