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I have recently been researching the usage of the word 'But' with specific attention given to its function as a coordinating conjunction, wherein it is used to create contrast. Throughout my research, I have often encountered the terms 'Denial of Expectation' and 'Semantic Opposition' (see this paper for reference). These are believed to be two of the central functions of 'but,' with another notable function being the 'Corrective' usage.

In Denial of Expectation, there is a distinction made between direct and indirect denial of expectation. In the former, the rejection of the proposition is made clear in the second conjunct, which negates the proposition of the first conjunct. In the latter, there is an entirely unspoken proposition that must be identified from the context.

Here are two examples (the unspoken expectations and denials are highlighted in square brackets):

  1. He was tall [he was good at basketball], but he wasn't good at basketball. (Direct)
  1. We were hungry [we ate], but all the restaurants were closed [we didn't eat]. (Indirect)

Now, my question relates specifically to semantic opposition, which is described as a contrast created by antonyms in each of the two conjuncts.

See an example below (the antonyms are italicised):

  1. Bill was tall, but Tim was short.

In the papers I've read, the examples given always seem to be overt in their opposite relationship, using antonyms like happy/sad, tall/short, etc. However, they never seem to address implicit opposite relationships between unlike constituents—a noun phrase and an adjective phrase, for example.

Here are two examples of what I mean:

  1. Loud music is terrible, but quiet music is what I live for.
  1. Loud music is terrible, but I love quiet music.

In 4 and 5, I would argue that they fit the description of semantic opposition, but they don't have conventional pairs of antonyms. The contrast in 4 is created between 'terrible' and 'what I live for' (the latter of which infers 'not terrible'); in 5, between 'terrible' and 'love' (the latter again infers 'not terrible'). Is this analysis correct? If so, why are examples like these not usually emphasised?

Edit:

Here are two real-life examples similar to 4 to illustrate their real-life usage:

  1. The Sydney Opera House is great, but this work [another piece of architecture] is some kind of miracle.
  1. Ninety percent of the people I've talked to really like it, but some have concerns about the height.
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  • I hesitate to edit out so much between "In Denial of Expectation" and "Now, my question," though all seems outside your question. As for the examples, I'd expect "Loud music is terrible, and quiet music is what I live for." I don't see contrast, just two opinions. Mar 21 at 19:39
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    @YosefBaskin I intended to link the indirect usage of Denial of Expectation to the Semantic Opposition in examples 4 and 5, though I may have not made that apparent enough. Your opinion of the examples is valid, but within the right context, I think they're perfectly grammatical and can still express Semantic Opposition. I'd argue you could say the same for example 3, yet sentences such as that are common when discussing Semantic Opposition. Thanks for your insight, though :)
    – MJ Ada
    Mar 21 at 19:51
  • We were hungry [we ate] -- close. We were hungry [we wanted to eat]
    – TimR
    Mar 21 at 20:03
  • This doesn’t sound entirely idiomatic or natural to me: 4. Loud music is terrible, but quiet music is what I live for. So I don’t know if it's a good example of what you’re getting at. IRL: Loud music is terrible; quiet music is what I live for. Mar 22 at 2:16
  • Maybe a different example might help? Something along the lines of this: 'I really like Jake, but Pete's a thorn in my side [I don't like Pete].' And here's another one from the New York Times: 'Ninety percent of the people I've talked to really like it, but some have concerns about the height [some don't really like it].'
    – MJ Ada
    Mar 22 at 11:51

3 Answers 3

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I've found a paper that directly addresses this question: 'Non-truth-conditional' Meaning, Relevance and Concessives by Corinne Beatrice Iten.

In her work, Iten discusses Semantic Opposition (pp.179–181), giving the traditional interpretation, as previously discussed by Lakoff:

... there is a contrast between [the two clauses in John is tall, but Bill is short] due to the presence of antonymous lexical items in the two clauses (i.e. tall vs. short). For this reason, R. Lakoff (1971: 133) dubs this 'semantic opposition' but.

Iten then goes on to discuss the non-antonymous relationships that we see in Semantic Opposition cases:

... as [Lakoff] herself concedes, the lexical items involved don't always have to be strictly antonymous.

To highlight this, Iten mentions Blakemore:

Blakemore (1987: 132) considers a whole range of examples which don't involve antonymy by any stretch of the imagination, and which don't, on the face of it, look like cases of denial of expectation either.

These are the examples provided:

  1. Susan is tall, but Anne is of average height.
  1. The onions are fried, but the cabbage is steamed.
  1. Mary likes skiing, but Anne plays chess.
  1. His father owns a Mini, but mine has a Porsche.

Though many would put these in the same category as Semantic Opposition, Blakemore comes up with an entirely new description:

Because the 'opposition' in these cases is not of a semantic nature, Blakemore prefers to call them 'contrast' uses of but. For instance, in [2], fried and steamed are clearly not antonyms. At the same time, it's not very likely that a speaker uttering this sentence would want to implicate that the onions being fried somehow implies that the cabbage isn't steamed.

It's important to note, however, that there can be multiple interpretations of the same clause, and the fried/steamed example could express 'indirect compatibility' such that the implication of the first clause is contradicted by the second.

Iten provides a scenario wherein a denial-of-expectation reading is possible (though this is not presumed without context):

[2] could be uttered by Joan to the health-conscious Susan, who is worried about the fat content of the meal. In such a context, the onions are fried might well imply that the meal is going to be high in fat, while the cabbage is steamed would imply that the fat content of the meal isn't going to be very high.

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  • 'The Sydney Opera House is great, but the Cathedral in Barcelona is some kind of miracle' shows, I'd say, a different emphasis again: a second statement trumping the first. And again, 'We were hungry, but all the restaurants were closed' has a covert contrastive ('and we looked around for somewhere to eat'). Mar 27 at 19:57
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When it comes to conjuncts that aren't really opposed semantically and yet the speaker has used but, a merely superficial contrast can sometimes explain the use of but:

I [hate loud] music but I [love quiet] music.

I [hate loud] music but I [could listen all day to ambient] music.

Sometimes we may have to delve:

I hate okra but I love lima beans.

I hate okra but I could eat a mess of lima beans.

Lima beans and okra are both a part of southern US cuisine, and so it could be like this:

I hate okra [okra is a frequent side dish in the US South] but I love lima beans [don't get me wrong, I do like some southern dishes]

or it could be something more idiosyncratic:

I hate okra but I love lima beans, but only the baby ones.

I hate okra but I could eat a mess of lima beans, but only the baby ones.

These are both foods whose texture can be disgusting to some people. Okra can be slimy. Lima beans, if picked late, can become tough.

As to why certain kinds of examples don't receive as much coverage, that is not really a question about the English language per se but about the behavior of academics. And yet it might be explained by the fact that in many instances, it might take a bit of "mind reading" or at the very least "context analysis" to understand an utterance. Academics might prefer to use examples that wear their context on their sleeves.

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  • Thanks for your answer, Tim. I think you may have drifted away from the point I was raising, though. If I'm interpreting your examples correctly (I got a bit mixed because of the brackets), they fall into the indirect Denial of Expectation category more so than the Semantic Opposition one. That's not to say that it can't be analysed as semantic opposition (the hate/love versions fit this analysis), but the overlap means that it probably wouldn't be analysed this way by any of the papers I've read.
    – MJ Ada
    Mar 22 at 12:08
  • I thought the examples were germane to your "they never seem to address implicit opposite relationships between unlike constituents". Perhaps I misunderstood what you mean by "unlike". I see now you probably meant adjective versus verb. I will add some examples of that nature.
    – TimR
    Mar 22 at 12:16
  • I think the distinction between these two categories is rather nebulous.
    – TimR
    Mar 22 at 12:22
  • Or were you thinking of "simple adjective" vs "verbal idiom that needs to be reduced to its essential lexical meaning"? Still not sure what you meant by "unlike".
    – TimR
    Mar 22 at 12:26
  • Yes, it's really a question about whether pairs of antonyms are necessary for a contrasting sentence to be classed as a case of Semantic Opposition or whether interpretation of meaning is sufficient. The distinction may be rather unimportant, but it's a gap that stands out for me in the research I've seen. Many, many articles make the distinction between SO and DoE, but they neglect to address the indirect nature of lexical contrast that is present in SO.
    – MJ Ada
    Mar 22 at 12:27
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The OED lists 69 meanings (21 of which are labelled obsolete and/or regional - particularly Scots English) for but as preposition, adverb, adjective, conjunction, noun and verb.

All of the meanings are based upon the cognate Old Saxon biūtan, būtan (conjunction) with the meaning "except, but, only" and originated from the Germanic that had the meaning "outside of" "exterior to".

The function of but, in all its forms is partitive and separates one idea or action from another by exception, recategorisation, removal, etc.

If we take your example,

The Sydney Opera House is great, but this work [another piece of architecture] is some kind of miracle.

Then "this work" has been removed from those examples that are "great" and has been placed in the category of "some kind of miracle."

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    Simply, 'but' can show contrast between complete statements in independent clauses: << [The Sydney Opera House is great], but the Cathedral in Barcelona is some kind of miracle]. >> A is good but B is [even] better. Mar 23 at 16:24
  • Yes but fundamentally, the contrast is by exception, recategorisation, removal, etc.
    – Greybeard
    Mar 23 at 16:31

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