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My daughter is a first-year uni student (a hapless English major, like I was). She encountered a particularly evil homework question that employed uncommon (archaic) uses of the word 'but'.

For example, from R.D. Blackmore's "Lorna Doone": (1) "There was not a bird but knew her well"
A variation seems to have "There was not a bird but he (a bird, not necessarily male) knew her well."

Context:

Annie kept some fifty birds, with bread and milk, and raw chopped meat, and all the seed she could think of, and lumps of rotten apples, placed to tempt them, in the corners. Some got on, and some died off; and Annie cried for all that died, and buried them under the woodrick; but, I do assure you, it was a pretty thing to see, when she went to them in the morning. There was not a bird but knew her well, after one day of comforting; and some would come to her hand, and sit, and shut one eye, and look at her. Then she used to stroke their heads, and feel their breasts, and talk to them; and not a bird of them all was there but liked to have it done to him.

I get this one.

Simplified: There wasn't a bird that didn't know her well.
Or: There wasn't a bird but (those who) knew her well.

I can handle that one.

But here's a Dickens of a quote for you. Literally. From Charles Dickens' "Nicholas Nickleby:

(2) "Not an article of my old furniture, but will be sold to strangers!"

Context:

Speculation is a round game; the players see little or nothing of their cards at first starting; gains may be great—and so may losses. The run of luck went against Mr. Nickleby. A mania prevailed, a bubble burst, four stock-brokers took villa residences at Florence, four hundred nobodies were ruined, and among them Mr. Nickleby.

‘The very house I live in,’ sighed the poor gentleman, ‘may be taken from me tomorrow. Not an article of my old furniture, but will be sold to strangers!’

Simplified: "There isn't an article of my old furniture [that won't be] sold to strangers!"

I cannot figure out how to parse this "but." It's driving me nuts. I was myself an English major who went on to PhD in linguistics. And for the love of me I am stumped.

Can anyone explain it? Or give me another similar example sentence for my withered brain to chew on?

I cannot but ask for help.

I love Dickens' antique prose as much as anyone (my daughter loves it less), but some of the stuff he writes is just so positively... Victorian. Just like the architecture of the period: lots of fancy filagree.

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  • What do you mean to "parse the but". You understood its meaning, so where is your difficulty exactly?
    – fev
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 12:28
  • There is not an X but Y is a dated / literary way of saying All Xs are Y, or If X applies, Y always applies too. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 15:41
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    Those are Nobbut-Clefts, a variety of Cleft Sentence involving negation and the conjunction but,, as exemplified by the examples here. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 16:29

2 Answers 2

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But always has some notion of exception, so even when it might appear to mean that there is actually something else in play. "There is no doubt but he won" should be rephrased as something like "There is no doubt: he did nothing other than win."

Certainly a simple replacement with that doesn't work for Dickens' sentence! "Not an article of my old furniture that will be sold to strangers" actually reverses the intended meaning.

In your sentence, "Not an article of my old furniture, but will be sold to strangers," but seems to follow OED's 5b, "any but, anything else than, other than, otherwise than:"

There is nothing of my old furniture other than what will be sold to strangers.

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The usage you are referring to appears to be that at point b of MW. BUT used as a conjunction meaning THAT, especially after a negative expression:

BUT:

b : THAT —used after a negative (there is no doubt but he won)

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