Today in class, we have some good grammar questions! Sam asked me a question about “although” and “but” and it really demonstrated to me how hard it is to explain English grammar sometimes. I mean, because I am a native speaker, I can feel what is correct and what is incorrect. However, to articulate why something is correct and why something is sometimes incorrect can be very difficult. Because of that, I often want to say to my students “trust me – I can feel that this is correct” or “just memorize the difference”, but I know that can be very frustrating for my students! Anyway, I have spent a few minutes thinking about what Sam asked me in class, and this is what I came up with.
The adverbial “although” means the same thing as “despite the fact that”. We use “although” at the beginning of a clause which contains information that contrasts in an unexpected or surprising way with information in another clause. For example:
Although it was raining, we went for a walk.
If it is raining, it is surprising that we went for a walk. The walk happened despite the rain. You can also feel that first it was raining, then we went for the walk. We cannot say this:
Although we went for a walk, it was raining.
If we went for a walk, it wasn’t surprising that it was raining. We probably already knew it was raining. The rain did not happen because of the walk. The rain was not an unexpected result of the walk.
Now let’s try but:
It was raining, but we went for a walk.
The coordinating conjunction “but” emphasizes the joining of two contrasting ideas. In the above sentence, you can feel that the two ideas contrast with each other. As a result, you can flip the sentence around.
We went for a walk, but it was raining.
You can add “but” to either of the clauses, but you can’t add “although” to either of the clauses. The coordinating conjunction “but” joins together two equally contrasting ideas. The adverbial “although” does not join together two equal ideas – one of the ideas is an unexpected result of the other clause.
Phew . . . that was hard! I hope that clears up the difference between “although” and “but”. If anyone understood my grammatical explanation, I’d really love some feedback!
Thanks for the great questions in class!