Is "I like dogs but cats" a valid sentence?

This question comes from a debate with my friend. She says this sentence must be valid and gives an example of the Visual Studio string: "Close all but this".

I think the Visual Studio string makes sense since we are excluding a subgroup of a generalized group. However I can't really tell what is the exact meaning of but here and whether we can use it to exclude anything.

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    It would be valid as "I like dogs, but cats..." (followed by an exasperated sigh). But you are correct that the VS example is qualifying "all", whereas "cats" is not qualifying "dogs" but is an entirely separate term. – Hot Licks Apr 17 '15 at 12:26
  • The funny thing is that if you try to emulate Visual Studio and you say, "I like all but cats", it has a wholly different meaning. – Mr Lister Apr 17 '15 at 18:59
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    Your friend has probably rationalized "Close all but this" as meaning "Close all but not this". From that point of view, one might also decide that "I like dogs but cats" means "I like dogs but not cats." But it doesn't work like that, as the various answers explain. – David Richerby Apr 17 '15 at 22:38
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    "Close all but this" isn't a valid sentence either. It's just a string of words describing a menu option. – Robert Harvey Apr 19 '15 at 15:02
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    @ Robert Harvey It is valid because the meaning of "but" changes when used as a preposition. The top 2 answers give a good explanation. – jiggunjer Apr 20 '15 at 7:28
up vote 79 down vote accepted

Not in the sense you mean.

But, is used here as a preposition meaning "except".

What Visual Studio is saying:

Close all tabs except this.

What your friend is saying:

I like dogs except cats.

That is wrong. Except only makes sense when you're talking about a subgroup of a group, not two different groups.

You could say, for instance:

I like all animals but skunks.

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    @EdwinAshworth: I didn't say 'but' can substitute 'except'. I said except can sustitute 'but' when used in this sense. And I'm NOT saying cats are a subgroup of dogs – Tushar Raj Apr 17 '15 at 12:58
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    As everyone knows, cats lord it over dogs -- definitely not a subgroup. – Hot Licks Apr 17 '15 at 13:16
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    @MrShibby: My bad. Edited :) – Tushar Raj Apr 17 '15 at 14:05
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    That's better, i can upvote now :) – Needpoule Apr 17 '15 at 14:07
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    @MrShibby Could someone please add links to a complete list of cat pics and movies demonstrating the fact? – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 17 '15 at 14:16

There are two different meanings and syntaxes (among others) for 'but'.

In

I like dogs, but ...

'but' is acting like a conjunction. What is expected in the ellipses is a full sentence. Using a simple noun there is really wrong and doesn't make sense. One expects something like "I like dogs, but cats really bother me".

In

Close all but this

'but' is acting like a preposition (heading a prepositional phrase) meaning 'except for'. Here a noun is expected. It is not as common as 'but' used as a conjunction, but is still used often enough (and is much shorter than 'except for', and so is useful in computer user interfaces).

So "I like dogs but cats" is not valid because cats is not a full sentence.

  • I like this answer better because of its usage of the terms "conjunction" and "preposition". – nanny Apr 17 '15 at 15:30
  • @nanny - I don't mind prepositions, but "conjunction" sounds like some sort of skin condition. – Hot Licks Apr 17 '15 at 18:39
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    @HotLicks Close. – Matthew Read Apr 17 '15 at 20:00
  • Typo? and is much short that 'except for‘ so [it] is. . . – Mari-Lou A Apr 18 '15 at 6:28

The sentence does actually makes sense if you say it with heavy intonation on the word 'but' and a pause at the end to leave the remainder of the sentence unsaid (but understood by the listener).

The clear implication is that you like dogs, but that you dislike cats.

I like dogs but cats...?

For example;

I like 1 but 2 [is too many]

I like France but Paris [I dislike]

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    I think this is correct, but requires a comma before 'but'. – DCShannon Apr 17 '15 at 20:45

What I have not seen pointed out by anyone else is that this attempt at a sentence is ambiguous. It could mean at least two different things:

I like dogs but cats are also okay.

vs.

I like dogs but I do not like cats.

I'm honestly not sure which one you or your friend meant. Because of that, I would not call it a proper sentence. As such, I also would not call it "valid". The purpose of any language is to convey ideas. Always make sure that you are clearly doing so, otherwise you're not being valid.

It is a valid sentence that doesn't make sense. As someone else said the following sentence is valid:

I like all animals but skunks.

The original sentence - "I like dogs but cats" - has the same structure, so it must be valid as well, but the meaning is nonsensical. Sort of like the following sentence which is valid but makes no sense:

I ate purple vibrations backwards up the apple.

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    I'm confused. Are you saying that "I like all animals but skunks." is nonsensical? – DCShannon Apr 17 '15 at 20:46
  • @DCShannon I'm saying it is valid and makes sense. My point is that if you substitute each part with an equivalent part, a noun for a noun, etc. it must still be technically grammatically correct even if it makes no sense. – Necreaux Apr 17 '15 at 20:50
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    I like all animals but skunks is acceptable, but I like animals but skunks isn't. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 17 '15 at 21:15
  • There's a difference between non-sensical meaning and invalid sentence structure. Neither of your first two examples has valid sentence structure. – Robert Harvey Apr 19 '15 at 17:04

protected by tchrist Apr 19 '15 at 16:29

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