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I've heard the use of 'but a' like this:

  1. I am but a common man.
  2. He is but a clever dog.

I'd expected something like this:
3. I am anything but not a common man
4. He is nothing but a common dog.

(Side question, what are the words anything, nothing in the sentence called?)
In the absence of words like anything, nothing, I'm unable to make sense of the sentences. Does it imply that he is a common man or not? Same for the dog, clever or not. What does the phrase but a imply here? Please tell me about it's usage.

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  • First, I think that both sentences 1. and 2. have "nothing" dropped in order to make its meaning someway poetic. I am [nothing] but a common man"; the meaning of "but" in your sentences is "just, only".
    – Alex TheBN
    Jul 12 '20 at 13:00
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    Avoid the usage in your first two examples - it's dated / poetic, bordering on archaic. We use just or only (or feasibly simply, merely, purely,...) in such contexts today. The "negative polarity" examples 3 & 4, where but effectively means except, are fine. Jul 12 '20 at 13:01
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It is rare, and dated. (so normally a learner should not use this).

It has much the same meaning as "merely", or "no more than" and is used in humble expression when speaking about oneself:

I'm merely common man, and nothing more.

So it does mean "I am a common man".

So when applied to others, it is disparaging. A clever dog is still much less clever than the stupidest human.

You are no better than a clever dog.

"Anything" is an adverb in your sentence

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  • can you explain the example no. 2: "You are no better than a clever dog. " shouldn't it be: "He is merely a clever dog" acc. to explanation no. 1?
    – juztcode
    Jul 12 '20 at 13:03
  • "no better than" could be called as a fixed expression, as in: You are no friend of mine.
    – Alex TheBN
    Jul 12 '20 at 13:05
  • @JamesK , how is it an adverb? There are no verbs in the sentence.... can you please explain
    – juztcode
    Jul 12 '20 at 13:05
  • it is an adjucnt to the adverb "but". There is a verb, the verb is "is". (in English, the copula is a verb)
    – James K
    Jul 12 '20 at 13:13
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"but a" is indeed an idiom meaning "nothing but a."

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    I agree. I would also say that the usage is somewhat stylized and archaic, the sort of thing one finds in early 20th-century novels as opposed to current everyday speech, at least in the US.
    – rcook
    Jul 12 '20 at 12:58

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