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The full quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw:

What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn't come every day.

I understand that the word 'but' could be used as 'only' or 'merely'. However, neither usage seems to fit the above quote. For example "What is life only a series of inspired follies?" doesn't seem grammatically correct. I think this is because it is posed as a question rather than a statement - 'Life is only a series of inspired follies' - here 'only' can be replaced with 'but' to give 'Life is but a series of inspired follies'.

Is there another usage of the word 'but' that I'm missing?

  • I implore you: plain 'Bernard Shaw'. He never used the 'George'. – StoneyB on hiatus Apr 30 '16 at 12:04
  • Many a quotATION attributed to Shaw is spuriously so, many a quotation-monger having the informal rule "when in doubt, attribute to Shaw"; but this is actually genuine, from Pygmalion. – Brian Donovan Apr 30 '16 at 12:28
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It is just meant to put a bit of extra emphasis on "a series of inspired follies". You could read the sentence as "What is life - if not - a series of inspired follies" or "life is nothing - other than - a series of inspired follies".

There are a few similar examples here:

"Ten to one but the police have got them" (Charlotte M. Yonge).

We would have reached the summit but for the weather.

Also it is a rhetorical question, something nobody has to answer to, as the answer is obvious.

  • This is how I understood the quote. Could you please point me to a reference that explains this usage of 'but' for emphasis - specifically as 'if not'? – Rob. P Apr 30 '16 at 6:36
  • Added one I could find. – Nisarg Apr 30 '16 at 6:43
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I think the closest sense of but I can find in the OED is 5b:

Whilst 5a applies to:

a. Negative and interrogative sentences containing a comparative (esp. more) were formerly followed by but; they now usually take than, or else the comparative is omitted and but retained; modern idiom preferring sometimes one, sometimes the other.

1713 Guardian 25 Aug. 2/2 There needed no more but to advance one Step.

1888 N.E.D. at But, Mod. There remains no more but to thank you for your courteous attention.

5b relates to:

b. So with similar sentences containing other, otherwise, else; in which but is still sometimes retained, esp. after else, as ‘Who else but he?’

1589 G. Puttenham Arte Eng. Poesie iii. xix. 164 What els is man but his minde?

1611 M. Smith in Bible (King James) Transl. Pref. 1 For none other fault but for seeking to reduce their Countrey-men to good order.

1689 R. Milward Selden's Table-talk 41 Pleasure is nothing else but the intermission of pain.

1713 Guardian 25 Aug. 2/2 Had no other Fault, but that of being too Short.

1888 N.E.D. at But, Mod. It is nothing else but laziness!

Earlier examples date from year 971.

In the example you gave in the question the sense of else is implied. What (else) is life but a series of inspired follies?

So it is a use of but which has been around since before the Norman Conquest and was alive and well in Saxon England.

  • I think OED C.I.7.a might be the better fit: "elliptically: Any but, aught but, anything else than, other than, otherwise than. (Often after ever, never.)" The general sense C.I is "In a simple sentence; introducing a word or phrase (rarely a clause) which is excepted from the general statement: Without, with the exception of, except, save." – Brian Donovan Apr 30 '16 at 12:22
  • @BrianDonovan I think my choice of 5b was influenced by the interrogative as in Who else but me, and also the possibilities for including else. But I agree that 7a seems also to fit. – WS2 Apr 30 '16 at 13:30

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