Hello Teachers

One question I'm now stuck by is how to parse rationally the phrase 'but for ~' in a sentence like 'But for the heavy snow, the plane would have taken off'. My English grammar book says that 'but for the heavy snow' can be rephrased as 'if it had not been for the heavy snow'. But this rephrasing also gets me further puzzled. I know the meaning of 'but for the heavy snow' and its alternative 'it were not/had not been for the snow'. As long as I understand them, they mean 'if there were not (had not been) the heavy snow'. However, I cannot get the reason 'but for the heavy snow' or 'if it were not (had not been) for the heavy snow' means so. Is the 'but' in 'but for' a conjunction or a preposition or an adverb? And what does the preposition 'for' connote? Is it like the 'for' in 'for the sake of'? And I am wondering what the pronoun 'it' stands for in the phrase 'if it were not (had not been) for ~'? Is it something like the expletive 'it'? I am totally confused with the grammatical analysis of 'but for ~' and 'if it were not (had not been) for ~'. Any comment will be much appreciated.
Hello Paco

I would read 'but for' as 'except for'.

'But' derives from Old English 'butan', which originally meant 'outside', 'without', 'except'. (I think its modern use as a conjunction dates only from the 13th century.)

See you,


Like Mr. P., I would say "except for" is the same, generally speaking, as "but for". I would call it a compound preposition, like "on account on", to cite just one example.
"if it were not for" does not yield well to a literal analysis. It is best thought of as an idiom. "it" is a non-referential place holder here.

"If it were not for the patience of the teacher, the student would have been dead long ago!"

But for the snow = Except for the snow = Except (for the fact) that there was snow = If it were not for the snow

"but" means "except" in other contexts as well, of course.

Everyone but me understands this idiom.
No one but you can help us now.
There's no one here but us chickens.

"but what" is another interesting combination, which you might have fun Googling!

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Hello MrP and CJ

Thank you both for the replies. OK, I understand the 'but' in 'but for' is a preposition. Then, what function does the 'for' have? We can say <but him> in 'Everybody but him understood it'. But we can also say <but for him> like in 'But for him, we wouldn't have understood it'. What role does the 'for' have exactly?
I plead ignorance!
To me "but for" is a compound which I think of as a single unit -- likewise "except for".
I don't seem to be able to assign a specific, separate role to the component "for".

The closest I could come would be to compare this "for" to the "for" in "For want of a pair of scissors, he tore the package open with his teeth". It has some subtle relationship to causality, I suppose. "Because of want of a pair of scissors, ...". "except for" is thus, in a twisted way, related to "*except because of".

He was tired, for (because) he had walked miles that day.
He was tired [because of / *for] walking so much.
We could barely see the path [because of / for] all the falling leaves swirling around us.
[But for / Except for / *Except because of] all the falling leaves, we might have seen the path more clearly.

[But for / Except for / *Except because of] the heavy snow, ..."

I'll have to leave it to you to formulate a more coherent story of how all of this connects together!

It has some subtle relationship to causality, I suppose.
That certainly tallies with the etymology:

"O.E. for "for, before, on account of."

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I'm coming to feel the 'for' in the 'but for X' is semantically similar to 'before' (= 'in the presence of'). That is, 'but for X' ='without (being in) the presence of X'.