comma before 'but' [meaning?, conjunction]: not a Mercedes, but a BMW

KnightMove

Senior Member
German/Austria
Compare these two sentences:

I don't drive a Mercedes but a BMW.
I don't drive a Mercedes, but a BMW.

Is there a difference in meaning?
 
  • KnightMove

    Senior Member
    German/Austria
    Sure? Doesn't the second sentence mean "I don't drive a Mercedes, but at least something comparable - a BMW." ?
     

    KnightMove

    Senior Member
    German/Austria
    The first sentence only states that the person is driving a BMW, not a Mercedes, without any further implications and comparisons between the two.
     

    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    KnightMove said:
    Compare these two sentences:

    I don't drive a Mercedes but a BMW.
    I don't drive a Mercedes, but a BMW.

    Is there a difference in meaning?
    I don't perceive a difference of meaning, but I find the comma strange since the sentence would seem to be complete only with all parts.
     

    KnightMove

    Senior Member
    German/Austria
    The reason why I ask this question: In German, there are the two different words "aber" and "sondern". Both translate as "but" in English.

    If you say "Ich fahre keinen Mercedes, sondern einen BMW." it means "You're wrong. I drive a BMW, not a Mercedes."

    But "Ich fahre keinen Mercedes, aber einen BMW." means: "I don't drive a Mercedes. But you are right in a way that I drive something in some degree similar or comparable - a BMW."

    Now - is there a simple and short way to express the second meaning in English?
     

    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    KnightMove said:
    The reason I ask this question: In German, there are the two different words "aber" and "sondern". Both translate as "but" in English.

    If you say "Ich fahre keinen Mercedes, sondern einen BMW." it means "You're wrong. I drive a BMW, not a Mercedes."

    But "Ich fahre keinen Mercedes, aber einen BMW." means: "I don't drive a Mercedes. But you are right in a way that I drive something in some degree similar or comparable - a BMW."

    Now - is there a simple and short way to express the second meaning in English?
    The best I can think of is "but I do" "I don't drive a Mercedes but I do drive a BMW" would get your nuance across.

    It might be best to ask in the German forum since they will be specialists in the interaction between English and German expression.
     

    Whodunit

    Senior Member
    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    We should move this thread to the German forum, at first.

    Then, I'd like to ask you if you considered "Ich fahre keinen Mercedes, aber einen Trabbi" correct - according to your explanation, it would be nonsense.

    I, personally, feel that there's a difference in meaning, but I'm not sure if you have hit the nail on the head. Again, we could discuss this in the German forum.

    The only solution in English I can think of is "but/however I do drive a BMW". Let's see what others have to say.
     

    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    Knightmove - please PM me if you would like this moved to German forum, but from now onwards no more use of German in this English Only forum please.
     

    Kelly B

    Senior Member
    USA English
    Whether or not you use a comma, I would interpret your sentences in post #1 to have the second meaning you describe: "I don't drive a Mercedes. But you are right in a way that I drive something in some degree similar or comparable - a BMW." I would be even more certain of that interpretation if you said "No, I don't drive a Mercedes, but I drive a BMW." This implies "and it is equally good."

    To express the more neutral "you are wrong, here's the truth" I'd simply say "I don't drive a Mercedes. I drive a BMW" without the "but."

    Edit: try replacing the second car with, say, a Volkswagon Beetle:
    I don't drive a Mercedes, but a Volkswagon Beetle - this one doesn't sound bad, so I suppose it could go either way. It still makes more sense to me with a BMW.
    No, I don't drive a Mercedes, but I drive a VW Beetle: this just sounds silly. The structure implies equality, but that's not how I think of the cars.
    I don't drive a Mercedes. I drive a BMW: this sounds perfectly normal, a statement of fact.
     

    mjscott

    Senior Member
    American English
    KnightMove said:
    Compare these two sentences:

    I don't drive a Mercedes but a BMW.
    I don't drive a Mercedes, but a BMW.

    Is there a difference in meaning?

    Getting back to the commas, I do not see a difference in meaning between the two.
    There are, however, sentences where the meaning changes completely with the aid of commas. I'll try and think of one and edit my post to add it....

    Edit: I like swimming, raw peaches, and mixed drinks while lounging out by the pool.
    I like swimming raw, peaches, and mixed drinks while lounging out by the pool.
     

    rsweet

    Senior Member
    English, North America
    KnightMove said:
    Compare these two sentences:

    I don't drive a Mercedes but a BMW.
    I don't drive a Mercedes, but a BMW.

    Is there a difference in meaning?

    I'm not 100% sure, but I think the meaning here is a variation of a structure using "not." You would use a comma before a negation. I think a better phrasing would be a straightforward (grammatically straightforward) "I drive a BMW, not a Mercedes." Or you could say, "I drive a BMS instead of a Mercedes." Or you could say, "I drive a car as good as a Mercedes: a BMW." These all have a slightly different tone and shade of meaning.
     
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