I open the door.

"Marlena!" I say, swinging the door farther open than I intend to. "What are you doing up? I mean, are you okay? Do you want to sit down?"

"No," she says. Her face is inches from mine. "I'm all right. But I'd like to speak to you for a moment. Are you alone?"

"Uh, no. Not exactly." I say, glancing back at Walter, who's shaking his head and waving his hands furiously.

"Can you come to the stateroom?" Marlena says. "It won't take but a moment."

“Yes. Of course.”

-- Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

What does but mean? (The sentence seems like it won’t take time except that it takes only a moment, I suppose.)

  • "but" in this content means "only". Only a moment. So the sentence means the same as "It won't take a moment". (That is, it will take even less than one moment.)
    – Mr Lister
    Oct 25, 2013 at 12:24
  • @MrLister I agree with the first part of your comment. It does not, however, mean "it will take even less than one moment". (Not that there's a big difference between one moment and less than one moment, mind you...)
    – user230
    Oct 25, 2013 at 14:39
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    @snailboat I don't think you can classify this as an exceptive; it is paralleled by "It won't take only a moment". Both the but and only versions are colloquial double negatives, and are, I surmise, not conscious emphatics but casual use of unanalyzed fixed phrases--compare "I couldn't care less". None of these would be accepted in a formal register. Oct 26, 2013 at 12:04
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    @StoneyB: Yes, there's definitely something of the "optional double negative" in such constructions. Semantically it makes no real difference whether either or both elements (negated verb and/or a qualifier such as but, only, just) are included. It's just that including neither implies the speaker thinks the amount of time is at least long enough to bother mentioning, and including both is informal/dialectal. Oct 26, 2013 at 15:51
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    Billy is prejudiced cause Jacks father is nothing only but just a humble butcher is perhaps a rather extreme example, but it'd mean exactly the same (and still be in the same "register") if it'd been ain't instead of is. In such constructions, so long as you have at least one negating/minimising qualifier, it makes little difference semantically (except perhaps by adding emphasis) if you add more such terms. Oct 26, 2013 at 16:46

1 Answer 1


This is sense 10 in Collins:

just; merely; only ⇒ "he was but a child", "I can but try"

Here, the sentence means "it will only take a moment". In other words, it won't take more than one moment.

  • "Merely", yes, that was the word I was looking for.
    – Mr Lister
    Oct 25, 2013 at 16:46

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