Every now and then I stumble about a construction like this:

It was but something....

and I understand it to be

It was nothing but....


It was only...

depending on the context.

I do know what this "but" means and I do know what else "but" can mean. My question is this?

Is the a difference between "but" and "nothing but" in this context, be it ever so small and hidden in tone or emphasis? Is there such a difference between "but" and "only"? And finally is "but" in this context something you can say or does that make you sound way out there? Thanks a lot


1 Answer 1


They all mean the same thing, as you note. However:

  1. Nothing but implies that the subject (*it) was more overblown than with the lone but, hence the nothing.

  2. There is no great difference in meaning between but and only. The NOAD defines but (adv.) as "no more than; only," while defining only (adv.) as "and no one or nothing more besides; solely or exclusively."

  3. But is older and/or more poetic; you might get funny stares if you use it in normal speech. For this reason you would normally use only.

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