7

They had the bodies, hind legs and tails of horses, but the front legs, wings and heads of what seemed to be giant eagles, with cruel, steel-coloured beaks and large, brilliantly orange eyes.

I don't know why 'but' is used in this sentence. It seems to me that it could be either a conj. or prep. What's 'but' doing there? Will it change the meaning of the sentence?

-- From Harry Potter.

  • 1
    I wish to add this: I am a native speaker, but I had a bit of difficulty parsing this sentence at first reading. I would have preferred "They had the bodies, hind legs and tails of horses; but the front legs, wings and heads were those of giant eagles, with cruel, steel-coloured beaks and large, brilliantly orange eyes." – trlkly Nov 16 '18 at 1:26
19

I agree with Michael Rybkin. I think that "but" is used as conjuction there.

At least according to the meaning established in the Oxford Dictionary

but [conjuction]

Used to introduce a phrase or clause contrasting with what has already been mentioned.
‘he stumbled but didn't fall’
‘this is one principle, but it is not the only one’
the food is cheap but delicious
‘the problem is not that they are cutting down trees, but that they are doing it in a predatory way’

contrast

The state of being strikingly different from something else in juxtaposition or close association.

Some parts [horse-like] are strikingly different from the other parts [eagle-like].

I have highlighted an specific example above where you can observe that the verb is used only once, the ellipsis mentioned by @Tᴚoɯɐuo

The food is cheap but delicious.

The food is cheap but (it's) delicious.

You got the same case in your example. Let's simplify

They had horse-like bodies but eagle-like heads.

They had horse-like bodies but (they had) eagle-like heads.

  • 1
    Right, I meant "conjunction". I don't know why I wrote "preposition". I was focused more on the semantics. I thought that if the OP understood what the sentence was saying, it wouldn't really matter whether but was used as a conjunction or preposition. Thanks for alerting me to this. – Michael Rybkin Nov 15 '18 at 12:22
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    @MichaelRybkin Ok, then I meant "agree" :-) – RubioRic Nov 15 '18 at 12:24
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    You could replace 'but' with 'and' here and it wouldn't change the meaning. – JimmyJames Nov 15 '18 at 21:29
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    @JimmyJames not quite. Using 'but' gives the reader an expectation that something unusual is coming, while using 'and' makes it a straight up description. It's essentially stylistic, but 'but' does make a difference. – mcalex Nov 16 '18 at 5:24
  • @mcalex I didn't say it was exactly the same in every way. Semantically, it doesn't change the meaning of the sentence. It's like 'too' versus 'also, style and feeling are different but not meaning. A counter example is that the 'but' in "all but one" cannot be replaced with 'and' without changing the meaning. – JimmyJames Nov 16 '18 at 15:19
5

It had the head of a man but (had) the body of a lion.

It is a kind of ellipsis, I think. Perhaps there is a narrower technical term for it. The verb had is understood to govern both objects, the head of a man and the body of a lion.

So that but there joins two clauses in one of which the verb is merely understood to be present.

5

Do you think you will better understand it if I restructure your quote like this:

Question: They had the bodies, hind legs and tails of what?
Answer: Of horses.
Question: But what did they have the front legs, wings and heads of?
Answer: Of what seemed to be giant eagles, with cruel, steel-coloured beaks and large, brilliantly orange eyes.

Thus, technically speaking, but as used in your passage is a conjunction. It's making a contrast between different body parts that the creatures they're talking about have. The body parts that are listed at the beginning are those of horses, but the body parts which are listed later are like those that giant eagles have.

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    Oh, it's an interesting use! I think I get it. Are you saying: they had bodies (of horses), hind legs(of horses) and tails of horses, but had the front legs(of xxx giant eagles), wings(xxx giant eagles) and heads of xxx giant eagles? – dan Nov 15 '18 at 12:08
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    Exactly. The body parts that are listed at the beginning are those of horses, but the body parts that are listed later are like those that giant eagles have. – Michael Rybkin Nov 15 '18 at 12:11

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