But Rather: Understanding Proper Grammar Usage

Just when you thought you had a perfect command of English, we thought we’d ask you a question to test your level of expertise. Is it correct to say, “but rather?” Even if your answer is yes, we need to make sure that you fully understand the context in which we use it.

Combining the conjunction “but” with an adverb such as “rather” is a good way to join the two words to reflect different meanings. “Rather” can mean “instead” or “preferably” or “somewhat,” and the use of “but” together with “rather” in different applications can be for contrast or to indicate an alternative.

We will show that it is correct to say “but rather” with the “but” playing a connecting role between two contrasting statements. This article will alleviate your concerns about using “but rather” and set you free on your quest to English language proficiency.

The Components: “But” & “Rather”

Let’s examine the component words “but and “rather” first before we look at the terms together. 

Using A Comma Before “But”

In the English language, “but” is used to link independent clauses, so what is our understanding of what comprises two independent clauses?

Consider the following sentence:

  • He traveled to the beach to swim, but the sea was too rough.

Think about the words preceding “but,” “He traveled to the beach to swim,” and then consider the words after “but,” “the sea was too rough.”

Would you agree that these two phrases can stand on their own as complete sentences? The same applies to the following examples:

  • We took the kids to the park, but it was too busy, so we went for ice cream instead
  • The band was due to play, but the drummer was ill, so the event was canceled.

An independent clause has to contain a subject and a verb, allowing the sentence to stand on its own (source). You have to place a comma before a coordinating conjunction, such as “but,” to connect two independent clauses. 

However, a comma is not required if the second clause has no subject. In the absence of two independent clauses, you can omit the comma as in the example below:

  • He traveled to the beach to swim but went to the restaurant instead. 

Clearly, the second clause contains no subject; it relies on the subject of the first clause, so it is not an independent clause.

Let’s look at both clauses on either side of “but” in the sentences below:

ClauseSubjectVerbBoth independent clauses?
He traveled to the beach to swim, but the sea was too rough.He
sea
went
was
yes
She wanted to go shopping, but she went to a movie instead.She
she
wanted
went
yes
It didn’t snow as they predicted but was still rather chilly.It
didn’t snow
was
no
He traveled to the beach to swim but decided to go to a restaurant instead.He
went
go
no
Image by Ben Mullins via Unsplash

Using the Word “Rather”

The word “rather” is highly versatile, and we use it to express degrees or alternatives. To better help you understand its meaning, let’s look at a few examples in a sentence (source).

Consider its uses below:

  • As a degree adverb — rather expensive.
  • To express an alternative or preference — rather walk than run.
  • To correct what has just been said — my daughter or, rather, stepdaughter.
  • For comparison — it was no warmer but rather colder.

Contrasting “Rather” and “But Rather”

The inclusion of “but allows you to bring clauses together in circumstances where its exclusion would not. Without it, “rather” functions much like “however” or “instead,” used at the beginning of a new sentence.

Look at the following sentence:

  • When we combine a group of male and female deer, we don’t use the neutral plural form but rather the male.

In this instance, “but ratheris a valid alternative to using a period or semicolon to start a new sentence. Here are two alternatives that have a subject attached to “rather’ and “but rather”:

  • When we combine a group of male and female deer, we don’t use the neutral plural form; rather, we use the male.
  • When we combine a group of male and female deer, we don’t use the neutral plural form, but rather we use the male.

Let’s consider some examples to make sure you have a firm grasp of the distinctions. Remember the use of commas, the definitions of independent clauses, and the use of both words “but “ and “rather” individually (source).

Purpose of “Rather”Short MeaningExample
For a better reason or with more proprietyMore proprietyYou should listen rather than lose your temper.
Describing a preferencePreferablyI would rather walk than run.
To some degreeSomewhat/ degreeThe watch is rather expensive.
Correcting a previous statementCorrectionMy daughter, or rather stepdaughter, is here.
On the contraryInstead ofIt was not warmer but rather became colder.

Got it? Good! Dreyer’s English style guide and The Oxford New Essential Dictionary will make invaluable contributions to your collection and will help you with your efforts to perfect your command of English. They are both found on Amazon.

Next, let’s summarize the options again, this time looking at parts of speech used in the various cases we are demonstrating.

ExampleShort MeaningParts of Speech
I would rather walk than run.Alternative or preferenceAdverb + verb
The watch is rather expensive.DegreeAdverb + noun
My daughter, or rather stepdaughter, is here.correctionAdverb + noun
It was not warmer but rather became colder.Instead ofAdverb + adjective

How Do You Use “But Rather” in A Sentence?

Image by Pixabay via Pexels

Remember, “but” plays a connecting role between two contrasting statements. Returning to the subject of this article, decide if using “but rather” is correct in this instance:

  • The Cabinet’s decision to resign in Lebanon was not a voluntary one, but rather one forced on them by public pressure.

The answer is yes. The “but” is required because the second section after “rather” is not a complete sentence. We used a comma here, however, which is acceptable in cases of extreme contrast (source).

What would happen if we did not include but and only used rather? We would have to rewrite the sentence using a pronoun like this:

  • The Cabinet’s decision to resign in Lebanon was not a voluntary one; rather, it was one forced on them by public pressure.

Note the inclusion of a semicolon before and a comma after “rather.” Using “rather” on its own requires the addition of the pronoun “it” and the use of a semicolon or a period.

It now functions as its own sentence, including information closely related to the previous sentence.

English doesn’t use semicolons often, but these two sentences are excellent occasions to use them in place of “but rather” because they are so closely related.

“But Rather” Punctuation Guidelines

Punctuating “but rather” is more complicated than it first appears, but we’ll give you a few guidlines.

Is There a Comma After “But Rather”?

You could use commas before and after “rather” if you use it as a parenthetical interrupter.

Consider this example: 

  • I didn’t want to dispose of my old refrigerator in the landfill but, rather, to recycle it.

The word “rather is an interrupting element and a supplementary word or phrase in the sentence, and, as a rule, commas should offset it on either side. Because “rather” breaks the sentence, a comma should precede it and follow it. 

It’s much like other interrupters, such as “Your performance has been, honestly, below par.”

The sentences below will give you a better idea of how to apply the two words in a sentence:

  • Nowadays, athletes no longer play professional sport for the enjoyment and the fun but, rather, for the money in it.
  • With COVID-19 around, I chose not to work at the office but, rather, from home.
  • I didn’t want to dispose of my old refrigerator in the landfill but, rather, recycle it.

Perhaps you are still unsure? In this case, we encourage you to break the sentence structure down into the two components and remember the connecting role of “but” and the contrasting role of “rather.” 

For further clarification on this topic, make sure you read our article on comma usage with “rather.”

What about “But Rather Than That”?

Rather than is a comm way to express a preference for one thing over another or for something that happens instead of something you expected (source).

One form of this would be “but rather than that,” which essentially means “instead of this, it’s that.”

Consider the following sentences:

  • I expected them to have yellowtail at the fish shop for me to buy. But rather than that, I had to buy tuna. 
  • She intended to study commerce, but, rather than that, she elected medicine.

Note that, in the first sentence, the “rather” is not considered an interrupter but helps to open the second, contrasting sentence. The Guardian recently published an article where Mark Goldring used the phrase “But rather than that” to open such a sentence (source).

In the second example, the sentence uses “rather than that” as an interrupter with a comma between “but” and “rather.”

 What about “But Rather Because”?

First, consider the inclusion of “because” after “but rather.” We know “because” means “on account of” or “owing to,” and we use it to introduce an explanation. As a conjunction, “because” seeks to link cause and effect.

Unless we use the word “because” as an interrupter, it will always link two independent clauses without using a comma.

Take a look at the following sentences:

  • The lack of patient treatment wasn’t because the nurses were negligent but, rather, because they were overloaded with work. 
  • People notice Rafael Nadal’s physique, not because they are jealous but, rather, because they think it’s great.
  • The crowd didn’t clap the injured player off the field because they were happy to see him go, but rather because they were showing sympathy.

In the first two examples, we used “rather” as an interrupter. In the second example, we used “but rather because” as a case of extreme contrast. However, we could have written it using “rather” as an interrupter, as in the previous examples.

Final Thoughts

“But rather” is one of the most challenging expressions in English to use properly, especially with regards to punctuation. Following these rules will guide you through some of the complexities of using “but rather.”

Through continuous use and practice, they will soon become second nature. Good luck!

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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