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I am confused with usage of but when a negative is preceding it. For example

The importance of this bill is not in its specific provisions, but in its broader impact.

Here is the word but doing a contrast between clauses? If so, my doubt is on the clause before but, it says not in its specific which on rephrasing means bigger or broader;however, the second clause says the same broader, then how is this a contrast? Like in contras the LHS clause contrasts the RHS clause, here in my example both clauses are saying the same right? Then how is it a contrast?

Even though initial clause tells about provisions and second does on impact, purpose of but is semantically to contrast.

Can anyone explain me how the usage of but is used when both clauses mean same thing like in my particular example ?

If I am totally wrong above then what exactly is the purpose of but here? In cases of cause-effect relationship what is the but doing?

Edit1: FYI, my example sentence is can't be wrong I guess as it's from a standardised test

Edit2: I have seen this on Web in MacMillan dictionary but not sure if this definition fits, it says 1a. used after a negative for introducing what is true instead His death was not a tragedy, but a release from pain and suffering. In this particular example author is subjective, I believe. Can anyone explain on this? But in my example going by this definition bill doesn't or shouldn't have "specific" provisions but that isn't true. Or am I wrong?

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    Be aware that the correlative conjunction not X but Y does not mean the same thing as the similar not only X but also Y means, nor the same thing as not X nor Y means. There are lots of these pairs of correlative conjunctions in English, including both X and Y, whether X or Y, either X or Y, neither X nor Y, so X that Y, the more X the more Y, no sooner X than Y — just to name a few. There are others.
    – tchrist
    Oct 1, 2021 at 0:55
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    I think I see your confusion. The word "not" is not part of the first item to be contrasted. The contrast here is between "its specific provisions" and "its broader impact." The general pattern would be: "...not X, but Y." i.e. X is contrasted with Y.
    – cruthers
    Oct 1, 2021 at 4:38
  • @cruthers this makes sense but how can we say that not isnt part of contrast? Like I am really confused, will all negatives don't form part of contrast? Is there any rule or grammar convention? I would like to know what you think of
    – Jax Hammer
    Oct 1, 2021 at 9:13
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    The bill does have specific provisions. The "not", as used in this sentence, means that the specific provisions are not important. The sentence is explaining exactly where the importance of the bill is. The importance is not in the specific provisions. Instead, the importance is in the bill's broader impact. The word "but" is functioning similarly to "instead."
    – cruthers
    Oct 1, 2021 at 13:47
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    Kind of hard to know whether you are inferring things too much or too little, but, in any case, after reading the first clause, you would definitely expect a contrast in the second clause. It's hard to understand what you're confused about at this point - are you able to see the contrast now? A possible rephrasing: "The importance of this bill is in its broader impact, rather than in its specific provisions."
    – cruthers
    Oct 1, 2021 at 21:19

4 Answers 4

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[the] purpose of but is semantically to contrast

I think this is your own assumption (perhaps based on some loose explanation of but in dictionaries, etc.), and that this assumption is the cause of your confusion.

I think the contrast conveyed by but in this particular construction is not a semantic one but the one between positive and negative.

The importance of this bill is not in its specific provisions, but in its broader impact.

Which means:

[The importance of this bill is not in its specific provisions], but [it's in its broader impact].

The clause before but is negative and the one after is positive. Hence the contrast.

A different order can be employed:

The importance of this bill is in its broader impact, but not in its specific provisions.

Which means:

[The importance of this bill is in its broader impact], but [it's not in its specific provisions].

Now, the clause before but is positive and the one after is negative. Hence the contrast.

If you were to convey both clauses as positive or negative, you couldn't use but:

??The importance of this bill is in its provisions, but in its impact.

??The importance of this bill is not in its provisions, but not in its impact.

I've removed specific and broader to try to make it less awkward as much as possible, but it's still awkward.

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  • But is logically equivalent to and. but it carries a presupposition of surprise (either the speaker's or the speaker's expectation of the addressee's). So, unlike and, it's not commutative: A and B is the same as B and A, but that doesn't work for but. Jun 3, 2022 at 20:53
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The use of but is to indicate negation of the phrase following. It could be replaced with rather.

The importance of this bill is not in its specific provisions, rather in its broader impact.

From Merriam-Webster Definition of rather than

Used with the infinitive form of a verb to indicate negation as a contrary choice or wish.

Rather than continue the argument, he walked away. He chose to sing rather than play violin

Even though initial clause tells about provisions and second does on impact, purpose of but is semantically to contrast. The two phrases talk about the specifics in contrast to the broader picture. They are well contrasted.

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The importance of this bill is not in its specific provisions, but in its broader impact.

OED:

But (conjunction)

III. In a compound sentence, connecting the two coordinate clauses; or introducing an independent sentence connected in sense, though not in form, with the preceding sentence.

11 b.(a) Introducing a statement which is not contrary to, but is not fully consonant with, or is contrasted with, the preceding one (which may be affirmative or negative): nevertheless, yet, however.

2017 Salem (Mass.) News (Nexis) 4 Apr. Cedar shingles are more expensive, but they are also durable.

The importance of this bill is not in its specific provisions, however [it (= the importance of this bill) is] in its broader impact.

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You don't need the but in this instance. The sentence above is a complex sentence, in context to the question, hence there are two (2) clauses, the main clause and the subordinate clause, therefore but is not collocative in the sentence.

I would rather you used:

The importance of this bill is not in its specific provisions but it is in its broader impact.

With this, the sentence is now a compound sentence which takes but as a conjunction.

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  • You say the the questioner does not need the 'but' in this instance, However that would leave the sentence "The importance of this bill is not in its specific provisions in its broader impact." which makes little or no sense and certainly does not convey the intended meaning. I know you have constructed an alternative sentence but just leaving the 'but' out of a commonly used and, to anyone familiar withthe stucture, clear form is merely confusing.
    – BoldBen
    Oct 1, 2021 at 7:50
  • I will have to agree with @BoldBen on this. Besides restructuring, sentence doesn't make sense in absence of but.
    – Jax Hammer
    Oct 1, 2021 at 9:18
  • I don't understand this answer. You say that "but" isn't needed, but you have it in your replacement sentence. The only change you've made is to add "it", and now it doesn't sound idiomatic to me. We don't usually repeat the subject, or replace it with a pronoun, in "not X but Y" constructions.
    – Barmar
    Oct 1, 2021 at 23:42

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