No buts about it: how to master the many “buts” of Japanese
In English, there are many words native speakers reach for without thinking about the specific grammatical function they serve.
Take the word “but.” Grammatically speaking it’s a conjunction used to show contrast between two different clauses. Native English speakers probably couldn’t tell you that, but they could tell you how to use it all the same.
Although Japanese is pretty different grammatically, it also uses conjunctions. The words for “but,” for example, are often conjunctions in Japanese as well as in English.
Let’s examine some of the ways you can say “but” in Japanese.
How to say “but” in Japanese
There are a number of Japanese expressions that stand in for “but,” and the one you want will depend partly on the context of your sentence and partly on whether you’re in a formal or casual setting.
You can use conjunctions like でも, だが and だけど to stand in for the English word “but,” although they don’t necessarily go in the same place in a sentence as in English.
しかし and けれども fill the same function in a more academic setting. If you need a more nuanced word to show contrast, you can use の代わりに to imply that the contrast is a little bit good and a little bit bad.
だが and だけど: the basic “but”
だが and たけど are the vanilla versions of the word “but” in Japanese. If in doubt about which word is most appropriate in a given context, it’s hard to go wrong with these two conjunctions, which are essentially interchangeable.
Like their English equivalent, these conjunctions typically go in the middle of two phrases to show contrast between them.
In other words, [phrase 1] だが [phrase 2] in Japanese is the same as [phrase 1] but [phrase 2] in English.
The only complicated thing about だが and だけど is that their form differs depending on whether you are using them after a verb or a noun phrase. If you’re using either word after a verb, you need to either drop the だ or add の (or ん).
That is, [verb] が or [verb] けど as opposed to [noun phrase] だが/だけど.
That might seem confusing, but don’t fret! Just remember that だ is the informal version of the copula です, used after nouns when there’s no other verb in a clause to mean something like “is.”
Basically, it’s the が and the けど that are important for this “but,” and you will need to add a だ (or a です) after a noun phrase.
“I want that computer, but it’s just too expensive.”
Here, が shows up after です. Just as with English “but,” it serves to show the contrast between two things. In this case, the computer is desirable but is not affordable. This usage comes after a verb but ん has been added, so we keep the です.
“I wanted to read, but my brother’s music was loud so I couldn’t concentrate.”
Here, けど follows the past tense ～たい form of the verb 読む, to read. Because the conjunction comes after a verb, it would be ungrammatical to add だ before けど for the same reason you can’t say 読みたいです.
In other words, the verb takes the place of the copula.
Saying “but” in Japanese with でも or それでも
The conjunction でも is fairly easy to use. It or its slightly bigger cousin それでも appear at the start of a new sentence, where they serve to connect what’s being said now to what was just said. You can use either word in the middle of a sentence as well, but だが or だけど are more common in those instances.
When spoken, でも is typically followed by a comma. However, that doesn’t have to be the case and it’s also common to see this conjunction at the start of a sentence that goes straight into the main clause.
(Note: The pair of hiragana that make up でも can also appear in Japanese sentences to mean “even,” such as 「一回でもじゅうぶんです。」 or “Even once is plenty,” so don’t assume any use of でも means there is a “but.”)
“It’s expensive! But I have to buy it.”
“Ramen is bad for your health. But it’s tasty.”
The use of それでも and でも in these two examples is self-explanatory.
Using の代わりに to imply a mixed blessing
While all of the above are perfectly valid ways of saying “but,” sometimes you want to add nuance. Say you found a really cheap apartment but it’s right above a bar, or you got fired from your job but you got a big severance package.
Whenever you need to convey some good news that had a little bit of bad news to go with it (or vice versa) you can reach for the handy Japanese phrase の代わりに.
Structurally this nuanced “but” follows the pattern of だが and だけど. The only difference is that instead of placing a だ after a noun, you place の instead. In other words, if this comes after a verb or adjective you should just use 代わりに.
It’s worth noting that after nouns, this phrase often means more like “instead of.”
“My father is always working, but because of that we have plenty of money.”
“I heard her husband played pachinko instead of going to the grocery store!”
Using しかし to say “but” in Japanese
Many languages have different so-called registers, or words and phrases that are acceptable in casual settings but not in professional ones. Japanese is no exception.
If you’re writing a school paper, are in a more formal setting or want to draw more attention to the “but” you’re about to list, try using しかし instead.
Usage for this conjunction is the same as using でも or それでも, in that it most frequently appears at the start of a sentence.
“But man, I really thought I turned off the gas.”
This use of しかし is very informal, but serves to emphasize the contrast in the sentence.
“The president of that company seems like a smart person. But the truth is, in college he frequently failed his exams.”
Bonus: Upping your “but” game with それにもかかわらないで
The next time you find yourself reaching for “but” in a Japanese sentence, any of the above will get your point across in a grammatical way.
If you just want to impress your Japanese friends, try this expression on for size: それにもかかわらないで
それにも means “even so,” while かかわらないで is a negative form of the verb 関わる (“to be concerned with”). The ～ないで on the end of the verb means something like “without [verb]ing” or “don’t [verb].”
All told, we can translate this expression as roughly “Setting those considerations aside.”
By putting it at the start of a sentence, you suggest that what you’re about to say is true in spite of an earlier statement.
“He’s a weirdo.”
“Well, that might be the case, but I think he’s a good person.”
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.