The following example ends with a dependent clause, so I assumed I shouldn't put a comma before but:

She was beautiful enough to attract men but not to intimidate them.

I checked similar sentences on this site.

It seems like there should be a comma in situations like these. Why is this?

Explanation by Grammarly.


Another example:

He wore a long-sleeve shirt that was too big for him(,) but in a fashionable way.

3 Answers 3


Great question.

The examples in the Grammarly explanation do make sense.

However, in the other examples given in your list, the included comma reads a lot better than without.

I like him, but not to win. (timesunion.com )

Imagine reading the above without the comma. It sounds odd. If read too quickly it might even sound like "I like him not to win," which has a totally different meaning. The comma serves to insert a momentary pause in the sentence which reads a lot more naturally.

Another example:

Maybe the idea of a steaming pool of therapeutic water carved out of volcanic rock and heated with underground energy was old hat to him, but not to us. (abcnews.go.com)

Again imagine reading all that without the comma. It's absolutely confusing because there are so many ideas in that one sentence. The "," adds a necessary pause, giving weight to "old hat to him" just prior, to be contrasted with the closing "but not to us".

All that nuance would be lost without the humble comma!

  • Great answer. So a comma should also be added to remove ambiguity. It makes absolute sense. Weird, I've never seen this mentioned on the net.
    – wyc
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 12:15
  • 1
    I'd say not just removing ambiguity (which is true in the first example), but also improving clarity and highlighting certain phrases. Basically use it where a pause would add meaning to the sentence.
    – chatnoir
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 12:34

In your first example, you do not need a comma before "but," because the "but" separates an independent and dependent clause.

She was beautiful enough to attract men but not to intimidate them.

In the example from the site you linked, comma is there to separates another clause ("Joyce told him") from the rest of the sentence and not because of "but."

There was a little fire at the track, Joyce told him, but not to worry.

In your last example, from the grammatical reason (an independent clause followed by a dependent clause), you do not need a comma befire "but," but you may use it to separate contrasting parts of the sentence (GrammarBook, rule 15).

He wore a long-sleeve shirt that was too big for him (,) but in a fashionable way.


Rather than focusing on rules, get to the essence of the sentence. Try to speak that sentence in your native language. The author here wants to say that the woman's beauty attracts men. It doesn't scare them. Also think of it logically - can a woman's beauty really be intimidating to men!? Why will it scare them? Does beauty attract or does it scare someone?

The meaning of this sentence is that the woman's beauty attracts men, it doesn't intimidate them.

The reason why a comma is present after men is because the entire sentence contains two sections She was beautiful enough to attract men and but not to intimidate them. Both of these have to spoken with a pause between them.

Similarly, in the 1st example you posted, we can see that again, there are two parts in the sentence - the man wore a long sleeve shirt which wasn't fitting him and the shirt was worn fashionably. Again, get to the essence of this sentence. The man wore a misfitting shirt but he wore it in a fashionable way. Again, you will speak the two parts with a pause between them.

The reason there's a 'but' between the two parts is because the second part is indicating something contradictory to the first part. Take the 2nd example - in the first part, the author says the shirt wasn't fitting him well (shirt wont look good) but despite being a misfit, the shirt was worn fashionably (which made it look good on him). So you see, the meaning of the 2nd part is a contradiction to the meaning of the first part.

As I said, sometimes strictly following the grammar rules to construct sentences can be misleading. It can give you results which probably mean something else. So it is better to get to the essence of the sentence, try to understand what it means and how would you speak the sentence in real life. Converting English sentences to my native tongue always helps me understand the sentences better

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