But for your help ....archaic?

Ocham

Senior Member
Japanese
But for your help, I couldn't have got over the hardship.

I know what this sentence means. What I want to know is whether the usage of "But for" meaning "If it were not for" or "If it had not been for" is still alive in contemporary English. Almost all the grammar books published in Japan contain this sample sentence. But I suspect it has already become archaic.
 
  • dreamlike

    Senior Member
    Polish
    Hi Ocham

    I wouldn't go so far as to say it's an archaic construction -- it's just a very high style and as such it's being used mostly in literature and press. I tend to come across it every so often, so no, it's not archaic. :) Don't use it conversationally, though. I, for one, use it only in writing.
     

    stevenst

    Senior Member
    Cantonese
    Hi Ocham

    I wouldn't go so far as to say it's an archaic construction -- it's just a very high style and as such it's being used mostly in literature and press. I tend to come across it every so often, so no, it's not archaic. :) Don't use it conversationally, though.
    Oh, I supposed "but for" to be used conversationally:eek: . I also want to know if it is very formal.
     

    PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    "but for" can sometimes be formal and archaic, but, as dreamlike says, it has its place.

    The most common use would be in such sentences as, "The scheme would have worked but for the unexpectedly heavy rain."

    "But for your help..." is archaic, especially when starting a sentence; the normal way of saying this would be "If it hadn't been for you helping/your help..."
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    There is nothing problematic about saying 'but for your help'. Feel free to use it and similar expressions.
     

    dreamlike

    Senior Member
    Polish
    There is nothing problematic about saying 'but for your help'. Feel free to use it and similar expressions.
    Hi Wandle,

    would you use it in a casual conversation, one you might have with your freind? I'd only use it in a very formal setting. :)
    Let's take the following sentence (I made it up). Here, 'but for your help' wouldn't stick out, but anywhere else, I don't think so.

    I should be most grateful for your invaluable assistance! But for your help, I wouldn't have managed to pass the test. I sincerely hope you will further aid me in enhancing my English pronunciation!
     
    Last edited:

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    It strikes me that an "educated" person might well use "but for your help" in speech, since it sounds a little formal. But that is just my opinion. I wouldn't take a prescriptive approach like dreamlike without evidence.

    I don't consider it archaic, but I would personally say "without your help".
     

    dreamlike

    Senior Member
    Polish
    It strikes me that an "educated" person might well use "but for your help" in speech, since it sounds a little formal. But that is just my opinion. I wouldn't take a prescriptive approach like dreamlike without evidence.

    I don't consider it archaic, but I would personally say "without your help".
    What piece of evidence can I possibly provide to substantiate my claim? None. It's just that I think 'but for + a noun' is rather unlikely to be used in speech, unless in a formal setting or in a conversation between people who make a habit of using formal language in informal conversations. That's only my opinion, dear E2efour. :)

    I'd love to read some more opinions on that. Does the construction 'but for + a noun' strike our dear foreros as formal and do they think it's best used in writing? :)
     

    PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    I'm with dreamlike - 'but for your help' sounds like something out of Hans Christian Andersen BUT, but for, in it's place - formal; high register or as per my example - it is OK.
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    I might say "There but for the grace of God..."; otherwise I don't think it's something that would come tripping off my tongue. It wouldn't sound odd to me if I heard someone else use it; in fact I like to hear a more formal type of speech, but it just isn't my personal style.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    But for your help, I couldn't have got over the hardship.

    I know what this sentence means. What I want to know is whether the usage of "But for" meaning "If it were not for" or "If it had not been for" is still alive in contemporary English. Almost all the grammar books published in Japan contain this sample sentence. But I suspect it has already become archaic.
    If you look it up in the British Corpus, Ocham, you'll find thousands of examples, literally. I'm not even sure it's necessarily very high register.
     

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    If you look it up in the British Corpus, Ocham, you'll find thousands of examples, literally. I'm not even sure it's necessarily very high register.
    Are you sure about this, Thomas?
    "But for" admittedly gives over 3000 examples, but only a handful have the meaning "If it had not been for".
    I also searched for "But for + possessive pronoun", which gave 187 examples -- again only a handful were relevant.
    (This is what I call evidence, dreamlike. But unfortunately it is not easy to use these corpuses!)

    At any rate "But for your help" on Google gave 187 examples, not all from English sources.
    The expression clearly exists (and can be used with other nouns, such as "But for your assistance"). But I did say that only educated people are likely to use it in speech.

    Thinking more about it, I wonder whether "But for you" would be more common in speech than "But for your help/assistance"? It is not easy to provide evidence for this from the various corpuses, especially in the case of spoken English.
     

    dreamlike

    Senior Member
    Polish
    Thinking more about it, I wonder whether "But for you" would be more common in speech than "But for your help/assistance"? It is not easy to provide evidence for this from the various corpuses, especially in the case of spoken English.
    I think there's simply no telling which of these is more common, just as there's no way of knowing if 'If it hadn't been for you' or rather 'If it hadn't been for your help' is more common in speech. :) And how does that matter anyway.
     

    Hau Ruck

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    I would not call it archaic, but I would not call it common-usage by any means.
    When reading it I fully understood what it means, but it's not something I would either say or expect to hear out of an average person's mouth.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Are you sure about this, Thomas?
    "But for" admittedly gives over 3000 examples, but only a handful have the meaning "If it had not been for".
    [...]
    I was confident when I wrote it but am no longer.

    I had another look at the first ten to be presented to me out of the mix. 3 out of the new ten had the meaning we were talking about - 30% of over 3,000 is around 1,000. The first sample I looked at suggested a higher %age. But then both samples may have been above the true %age of the total. I agree with your suggestion that I was exaggerating.

    In support of my view that this isn't a particularly high-register usage, I'll give two examples from the British Corpus. Soccer journalists in provincial newspapers write for a wide audience and are not always the most pompous members of their profession, yet here are two apparently thinking nothing of using this formula:

    Ipswich had enough chances to have won convincingly yet, but for the reflexes of goalkeeper Baker, they could have ended well beaten. East Anglian Daily Times 1993

    But for a wonder save by Peter Schmeichel from Willie Falconer's header we would have won. Northern Echo
     
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