But in Chinese With A Turn in Events

"But" What?! Comparing "But" in Chinese 但是 vs. 不过 vs. 可是

“I want to understand Chinese grammar, BUT I’m not sure how to use ‘but.'”

Fret not, brave learner! This article will cover the different ways that you can indicate a “转折 zhuǎnzhé – turn in the course of events” using the words “但是/但 dànshì/dàn,” “可是 kěshì,” and “不过 búguò (but in Chinese).”

Connectors are what linguists call “conjunctions.” The Chinese word for them is “连词 liáncí – ‘connect + word.’ They serve to connect separate thoughts and show how they are connected. Examples in English are words like “and,” “or,” “because,” etc. Chinese connectors are one of the most straightforward elements of the language to understand, so be sure not to overthink them too much :).

Let’s check out some example sentences:

Sentence 1 – 不过 bùguò (but in Chinese):

我儿子没有手机,不过我有手机。 – Level 14
Wǒ érzi méiyǒu shǒujī , bùguò wǒ yǒu shǒujī.
My son doesn’t have a phone, but I do.

We’ll start with the softer toned “不过 bùguò (but in Chinese)”. Compared to “但是 dànshì” and “可是 kěshì,” 不过 (bùguò) usually has a lighter tone. Whatever comes after “不过 (bùguò)” is often a positive ‘turn of events’ from the speaker’s perspective. 

‘Sure, my son doesn’t have a phone, but I do [and therefore the problem of not having a phone is solved].” Everything in brackets is implied by using 不过 bùguò (but in Chinese) as opposed to 但是 (dànshì) or 可是 (kěshì).

Sentence 2 – 但是 (dànshì) & 可是 (kěshì):

我吃了,但是(可是)我的儿子还没吃。 – Level 14
Wǒ chī le, dànshì (kěshì) wǒ de érzi háiméi chī.
I ate, but my son hasn’t eaten.

In this sentence, the “turn of events” is, ‘but my son hasn’t eaten’. It would be hard to spin that as a ‘positive’ turn, so in this case, you’re far more likely to use either 但是 dànshì or 可是 kěshì (but in Chinese). 

但是 (dànshì) & 可是 (kěshì) are virtually always interchangeable. The only difference is that 但是 (dànshì) is slightly more formal than 可是 (kěshì), but you can use either of them in day-to-day life.

Sentence 3 – But in Chinese:

我有两个儿子,可是(但是)没有女儿。 – Level 17
Wǒ yǒu liǎnggè érzi, kěshì (dànshì) méiyǒu nǚér. 
I have two sons, but no daughter.

Once again, it would be strange to put “不过 bùguò (but in Chinese)” before something like, “but I don’t have a daughter,” because ‘not having’ something as lovely as a daughter isn’t positive. 

This isn’t to say that you must always look for a negative or positive connotation since “turns of event” can be neutral, but in this case, it’s better to use “可是 (kěshì)/但是 (dànshì)” as opposed to 不过 (bùguò).

Sentence 4 – 不过 bùguò (but in Chinese):

我住在东边,不过我在西边工作。 – Level 16
Wǒ zhù zài dōngbiān, bùguò wǒ zài xībiān gōngzuò.
I live in the east, but I work in the west.

This sentence is great for understanding context. There’s nothing inherently positive or negative about “living in the east” or “working in the west,” so we can infer the context from the speaker’s use of 不过 bùguò. Because he/she used “不过 bùguò (but in Chinese),” the speaker is likely talking to someone who would be glad to hear he/she works in the west.

You could imagine that Person A said something like, “Our event is in the western part of the city, do you live in the west?” to which Person B replied, “I live in the east” (aka, thing Person A doesn’t want to hear) “不过 (bùguò) BUT I work in the west” (aka, thing Person A is happy to hear).

Sentence 5 – 但 dàn:

我只有一只大狗,但有两只小猫。 – Level 26
Wǒ zhǐ yǒu yīzhī dà gǒu, dàn yǒu liǎngzhī xiǎo māo.
I only have one big dog, but I have two small kittens.

Finally, “但 dàn (but in Chinese)” by itself is the most formal. A lot of written Chinese uses abbreviated versions of words to get across the same idea as its spoken counterparts. This makes sense, considering how long it used to take to write before the invention of typing. If you’re writing by hand, the shorter, the better.

As always, just because a word is considered “written Chinese” doesn’t mean you can’t use it in speech, but you’ll sound more formal. Also, 但 dàn (but in Chinese) by itself doesn’t imply anything negative or positive; it’s merely the most written way to express a “转折 zhuǎnzhé – turn of events.”

When you see sentences containing ‘但是/但 dànshì/dàn,’ ‘可是 (kěshì),’ or ‘不过 (bùguò),’ ask yourself, “what’s the turn of events? Is it negative, positive, or neutral?” That answer may not always be obvious, but recognizing the pattern will help you acquire the structure faster.

Also, don’t forget there is no such thing as “learning” grammar, it is more about acquisition. You can read more about how to acquire Chinese grammar in a natural way in this post.

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Chinese Conjunctions
1 March , 2021
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