Ah’d Miss James Wood But.

I just read a nice piece by J.C. [James Campbell]​ about Glasgow grammar in the 3 September TLS and wanted to share it; naturally I was pleased to see that Scott Lahti had quoted it at his blog, saving me the trouble of figuring out how to do so. It begins:

As the referendum on Scottish independence approaches, our thoughts turn to ways in which Scotland will remain separate from the rest of the United Kingdom, no matter what happens on September 18. The church, the legal, banking and educational systems, will retain their distinctive features. There is, however, another unique area, seldom mentioned: grammar.

What set J.C. off was James Wood’s essay in the New Yorker on the writer James Kelman, who “is not so much a Scot as a citizen of the Republic of Glasgow, a provenance reflected in his writing on almost every page”:

Quoting generously, Mr Wood sets a new record for the use of what we will considerately call “the f–word” in a New Yorker article (that’s saying something). Sharp as he is, however, he failed to make plain to American readers Kelman’s distinctive use of “but”. Let’s recast that: Sharp as he is but, he failed to make plain . . . . On the Glaswegian tongue, “but” functions as “though” or “however” and often comes at the end of a sentence. Or it functions just as “but” – placed at the end but. Let’s eavesdrop on two friends, Big Tam and Wee Shug, at the bar of a Glasgow pub:

Tam: “Ah’m daft aboot thon New Yorker.”

Shug: “Ah like it an aw. There’s a loat a swerrin’ in it but.”

Tam: “Stoap buyin’ it well.”

Shug: “Ah’d miss James Wood but.”

Mr Wood concocted some fancy theories about Kelman’s “but”, without quite getting it right. He omitted any mention of the deployment of “well” at the end of a sentence – the place where you might expect to find “then”.

Tam: “Change owr tae the LRB well.”

Shug: “It’s no the same but.”

Tam: “Stoap greetin’ well.”

At which point, Big Tam rolls his copy of the TLS into a baton and prods Wee Shug’s arm.

He does this repeatedly. Shug says, “Gonnae no do that”, which is nothing if not another example of grammar as independence by other means. Tam intimates his intention to “Shoot the craw”, not before reminding Shug of their weekly book group meeting, at which the volume under discussion is Not not while the giro by James Kelman. Tam proudly says he read it in one sitting.

“Gaun yersel big man”, Shug says in ironic congratulation. About the book group, he has a confession to make: “Ah’ll no can go”. The Glaswegian grammatical perfection of those sentences does nothing to reduce Big Tam’s exasperation. “Yir huvin me oan. Yir the main speaker but.”

“Get anither yin well.”

A delightful way to introduce subtleties of usage that will stand me in good stead next time I read Kelman or any other of the Glasgow Pléiade.


  1. This usage of ‘but’ is quite common in colloquial Australian English (at least where I grew up). But I think the Glaswegian takes it a lot further. I don’t think that Australians would come up with sentences like “You’re the main speaker but”. In fact, this sentence doesn’t even pass the “though-equivalence” test, which could be why I find it strange according to the Australian idiom.

  2. Actually, there are quite a few references on the web:

    English Use Of “BUT” At the End of A Sentence

    (Oxford English Dictionary: Australian /NZ & Scottish informal (used at the end of a sentence) though ; however:
    he was a nice bloke but)

    Thread: Usage of ‘but’ at the end of the sentence

    (Modern English Usage by Fowler…says it is somewhat natural in Australian English, Irish English and in some parts of South Africa, or may be in other part of the English speaking nations…)

    Thread: But instead of though at the end of a sentence

    (I have a young American character in a play I’m writing. I have her saying, “You sound like you could be, but.” She’s not sophisticated enough to use though instead of but. I’m in Australia and I don’t know whether a poorly educated American child would use but in this way. If not, what word would she use instead?)

    Why do Australians say ‘but’ at the end of every sentence?

    (I remember some children finished some sentences with “but” when I was at primary school over 40 years ago.
    It isn’t something I’ve heard recently.
    You seem to be making a wild generalisation about us.)

  3. Bathrobe: Final but in AmE means something like ‘but I don’t believe it for obvious reasons’. Your American child would either not use a terminating word at all, saying “You sound like you could be”, or else would use though. I don’t think sentence-ending though is particularly sophisticated, either; I don’t know how old your child is, but an over-ten should be able to say it.

  4. I have a young American character in a play I’m writing. I have her saying, “You sound like you could be, but.” She’s not sophisticated enough to use though instead of but. I’m in Australia and I don’t know whether a poorly educated American child would use but in this way. If not, what word would she use instead?

    Sorry, not my child; I was quoting from the thread!

  5. One more English dialect where terminal but functions as an equivalent to “though” or “however” is Hawaii Creolized English, known in Hawaii itself as “pidgin.” A pidgin-speaker will say, “I carried my umbrella. It didn’t rain but.”

    And no, that isn’t the same kind of but that terminates Humpty Dumpty’s poem in Through the Looking-Glass:

    “And when I found the door was locked,
    I pulled and pushed and kicked and knocked.

    “And when I found the door was shut
    I tried to turn the handle, but–“

  6. An Irish acquaintance once told me that this was a Northern Ireland Shibboleth, Don’t know if that’s true but. Many of those vaguely Lowlands/Northern Ireland features crop up in Midland American English (positive anymore, non-y’all second person plurals), but not this one.

  7. J. W. Brewer says

    There’s a disconnect with the intro if these are Glasgow-specific features as opposed to features broadly shared (at least in an informal register) by ScotEng speakers but generally not used by EngEng speakers. England itself has quite a range of very distinctive local dialects not linked to nationalist/separatist movements.

    I think at least at one point the SNP was issuing position papers in Scots (presumably some semi-artificial aspiring-to-be-standard written normative version) as well as in standard BrEng (maybe also in Gaelic?), but I don’t know how many people actually read them in preference to the standard version. A chicken-and-egg problem where after Scots has fallen out of use for certain registers for a few centuries it’s hard to bring it back w/o a critical mass of people all agreeing to do so? I wonder if wikipedia could track what percentage of users in Scotland read the http://sco.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page article, where there is one, in preference to the English article on the same subject.

  8. An Irish acquaintance once told me that this was a Northern Ireland Shibboleth, Don’t know if that’s true but.

    Aye. There are no real Northern Ireland shibboleths, the linguistic (phonological, dialectal) border is the historic border of Ulster, which province includes a decent chunk of the Republic. But, in my experience, while I do also hear it from people from Donegal or Monaghan, anyone Irish using it is more likely to be from Northern Ireland than not.

  9. Personally I’ve always associated sentence-final “but” with the North East of England, and I’m pleased to see there’s at least one set of linguists agrees with me.

    My favourite sentence ender is the Cork Irish English use of “so”, as in Michael Collins’s response circa 1918 to a lieutenant who remarked that a known traitor they had just met on the steps of a Dublin hotel would have to be shot one day: “Well shoot him, so!”

  10. ktschwarz says

    Thanks to Bathrobe (second comment) for that bunch of links. The commenter at Straight Dope who quoted “the Oxford English Dictionary” was actually citing not the big historical dictionary but the dictionary of current English from the same publisher, last printed under the title Oxford Dictionary of English in 2010, now found at lexico.com. The big OED eventually entered this usage as well, in the full revision of “but” in September 2018:

    3. colloquial (chiefly Australian, Irish English, and Scottish). Placed at the end of a sentence or clause: though; however.

    Their first citation is from At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). This makes me wonder: was this a 20th-century innovation in Irish English that spread to a few other places? Or were they independent, parallel developments?

  11. Good question. On a separate issue, I wanted to update the dead Scott Lahti link, but “Wayback Machine has not archived that URL.” Goddammit. And the original TLS piece is too old for Google to retrieve. Thank goodness I quoted as much as I did.

  12. I saw final but a few days ago in this page about Geordie (It’ll be dark, but).

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Ghanaian English uses sentence-final “or” to mark yes/no questions:

    “You follow or?”
    (“Are you coming too?”)

    This is calqued on … well, pretty much every local language. There’s nothing quite like a good Sprachbund.

  14. Trond Engen says

    And as we already knew, Norwegian is part of the Sprachbund.

    Blir du med eller?

    With Geordie too:

    Det blir mørkt men

  15. John Cowan says

    (from the Geordie article)

    she was told by her instructor that use of the word knackered (‘exhausted’) should be replaced by the more genteel “pooped”.

    This Yank, for whom pooped is a euphemistic verb in the past tense, had to repress a shout of laughter at this one (for fear of waking Gale).

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