Merriam-Webster lists 'to the contrary' as one of the senses of 'but.'

3 : to the contrary < who knows but that she may succeed>

Being worded like this, I'm having a bit of hard time understanding 'but' in this context. Is this just bad wording on M-W's part or am I not understanding something correctly, in which case I would greatly appreciate some spelling-out. For the record, I'm not a native speaker.

  • 2
    Since you're "not a native speaker", you should give more credence to the idea that your failure to understand the usage stems from that, not from the possibility that M-W came out with "bad wording". It's perfectly valid English, if slightly formal and perhaps even a little "dated" to some younger speakers. Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 20:52
  • "if slightly formal and perhaps even a little "dated" to some younger speakers." There is no doubt of the truth of both, no "ifs, ands or buts". And for those reasons you've given, it deserves to be explained. Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 21:27
  • Related:english.stackexchange.com/questions/36572/…
    – user66974
    Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 6:58

2 Answers 2


It is perfectly correct usage, however not the most common use of but.

Per the Free Dictionary, To the contrary: to the opposite effect from what has been stated or what is expected; contrary to expectations.

But: contrary to expectation; yet.

In your example, let's reword.

Most people think Pat will fail, (but/to the contrary) who knows? I think that Pat may actually succeed.

Substituting and shortening:

Most people think Pat will fail, but who knows? I think that Pat may actually succeed.


But who knows that Pat may succeed?

Not quite right (though acceptable depending on the previous sentence). Better:

Who knows but that Pat may succeed?

All the between steps are understood by fluent English speakers. Again, this is not the most common construction using but meaning to the contrary. A much more common one is fully worded out, as in the first example.

  • Perhaps wording it contrary to expectations, in which case, Who knows, contrary to expectations, she may succeed.
    – bib
    Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 22:27
  • @bib - Trying to respond to OP's actual question, but agreed. Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 23:52

I don't agree (1) that this usage is 'dated'; it's 'archaic'

(2) that M-W explains the meaning of this usage correctly (hence medica's explanation is suspect); the Google dictionary facility defines the two-word string:

but that

phrase of but 1. (archaic) other than that; except that. "who knows but that the pictures painted on air are eternal"


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