English writing: The subtle difference between "but" and "yet" (coordinating conjunctions)
Updated: Sep 28, 2022
If you look online for the difference between but and yet, you are likely to find one or both of these statements:
As coordinating conjunctions, but and yet are interchangeable.
The difference is that yet is more formal.
This does not tell the whole story, however, and it is not exactly true in some cases.
First things first: This post is only about using but and yet as coordinating conjunctions. It is not about the use of yet as an adverb, as in the sentence "I haven't finished it yet."
So, what types of sentences are we talking about? Let us get right to it. Look at these two examples:
Max wants to be a basketball player, but he never practices.
Max wants to be a basketball player, yet he never practices.
How are but and yet similar in these sentences? They both introduce a contrast. That much is clear. Also, yet does sound more formal. However, there is a subtle difference in the two intended meanings--in the feeling of each sentence. Perhaps you can see and feel the difference, but you cannot quite express why these two sentences are slightly different. So, what is the difference? In the simplest terms:
But introduces a contrast and simply treats it as a fact with little or no emotional component.
Yet introduces a contrast, but it also expresses a feeling of expectation, surprise, or mystery.
When we say "Max wants to be a basketball player, yet he never practices," we feel that he should practice. We expect him to practice. "Why isn't he practicing?" we wonder. It is surprising, and perhaps even confusing, that he does not practice. With all of this in mind, we can see that yet shows a stronger contrast with the elements of expectation, surprise, and/or mystery mentioned above.
Let's look at several more examples and explanations.
He's a math teacher, but he's bad at division.
Oh. That's an interesting contrast, and it is a little surprising.
He's a math teacher, yet he's bad at division.
That's quite surprising. I expect a math teacher to be good at division.
They're poor, but they're happy.
That's a nice contrast. I'm glad to hear it.
They're poor, yet they're happy.
It is surprising that they are happy. This is a good surprise! The tone of how you say a sentence like this can tell your listener whether you are shocked, confused, or pleasantly surprised by a contrast such as this one.
She knew the answer, but she didn't tell me.
I am stating a fact. It would have been nice if she had told me the answer, but it wasn't the end of the world.
She knew the answer, yet she didn't tell me.
I thought we were good friends. I expected her to tell me the answer. I am confused and/or disappointed that she did not tell me the answer.
I'm usually allergic to nuts, but I didn't react to your almond cake.
I am stating a fact. I am also happy that I did not have a reaction.
I'm usually allergic to nuts, yet I didn't react to your almond cake.
I am surprised that I did not have an allergic reaction when I tried your almond cake. Normally, I react to such things! This was quite surprising to me, and maybe even a little mysterious because I fully expected to have at least a small reaction.
I love to dance, but I don't love to sing.
This is a simple factual contrast about me.
I love to dance, yet I don't love to sing.
It is actually a bit strange to use "yet" in this case because there is no direct connection between loving to dance and loving to sing, so it should not be a surprising contrast. "But" works better here.
You knew she needed help, but you did nothing.
I am stating a disappointing fact about the situation. The tone of this sentence can make the other person feel quite guilty.
You knew she needed help, yet you did nothing.
Why didn't you do anything to help her? I'm disappointed in you. "But" works here as well because the context and accusation is quite serious. However, "yet" adds a little extra guilt in this case.
As you can see, there is a subtlety in usage between but and yet. The uses I have shown here were a mix of written and spoken examples.
What about stress and intonation in speech?
While yet is typically stronger than but, the way we say something can tell our listeners how we feel. Look at the following exchange:
Deborah: "I knew that Jimmy was cheating on you."
Jennifer: "But you didn't tell me?!"
"But" is sufficient in this case, as the exclamation mark makes it clear that Jennifer is not happy with Deborah. She probably said the sentence with rising intonation at the end as well. Yes, Jennifer could have made her case even stronger with "yet," but it is not really necessary in this case because the context is so clear.
In speaking, even though it is redundant to use two coordinating conjunctions next to each other, you can also say "And yet" at the beginning of a response. For example:
Mika: "I didn't want to hurt you."
Shinji: "And yet you did it anyway."
Shinji could have said "Yet you did it anyway" or "But you did it anyway." In cases such as these, where the emotions are already quite charged, "but" and "yet" can be used almost interchangeably, but "yet" does add an extra layer of strength and formality to your response.
I hope this has cleared up some of your questions about "but" and "yet." If you have any specific examples, questions, or feedback you would like to share with me on this topic, please leave them in the comments. Until next time, I wish you success in your studies.
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