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What is the difference between these phrases? When is it valid to use which? Should they be avoided as being ambiguous?

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    In case it helps: in these expressions, "but" is interchangeable with "except". Commented Jan 7, 2011 at 12:29
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5 Answers 5

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Nothing but A

Means only A. You don't want anything else.

Anything but A

Means that you don't want A. You could have B or C, or maybe even both B and C (and even E if someone offers) - but NOT A!

Everything but A

Means that A is the only thing you don't want. You do want the rest of the entire alphabet - but NOT A!

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"Nothing but" means "only":

  • Nothing but the best.
  • Only the best.

"Anything but" means any one thing except whatever follows but:

  • Don't make me go to school. Anything but that.
  • Don't make me go to school. You can make me do anything else, but don't make me go to school.

"Everything but" means everything excepting whatever follows but:

  • He remembered to bring everything but his toothbrush.
  • He brought everything with him except his toothbrush, which he left behind.
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But here means except.

I want nothing but chocolate

means I do not want to have any food except chocolate.

Give me anything but chocolate

means I can eat all kinds of food except chocolate.

I will eat everything but the chocolate

means I am going to have all the food in front of me except the chocolate.

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  • Curiously I've seen some people (of south-african origin, if that matters) use "anything but" the other way around. this is why I suspected an ambiguity - but perhaps they were just wrong Commented Jan 6, 2011 at 8:36
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"I wanted everything but that" means "I really didn't want that at all". So, unlike "all but" which means "almost", "everything but" means "very far from".

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Nice to see I'm not the only one pondering this. The above answers do sum up the most frequent usages, but I would like to propose an addendum concerning the ambiguity of the phrases, which, for me, was the core of the question:

"Anything but" may sometimes also be used in a way that is closer in meaning to "nothing but", mainly when posed as a rhetorical question, as in:

"How can B mean anything but A?" — implying that B means A, and only A.

This does not call for avoidance of the phrase, however, as the intended meaning can, more or less, be easily understood from the context of its use. Give readers/listeners some linguistic credit.

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    That is exactly the same meaning as in the examples given in other answers; there is no difference. If you substitute ‘nothing but’, you get a very different (and odd) sentence: “How can B mean nothing but A?” is quite strange. “How can B mean anything but A?” is exactly what you would expect: “How can B mean C, D, E, F … Z?”, since ‘anything but A’ denotes any letter in the alphabet that is not A. Commented Aug 26, 2013 at 9:07

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