'But' is a conjunction to express a contrast between two ideas. Incomplete sentences allow us to omit information without changing the intended meaning. This makes it difficult to identify the correct meaning.


Provided are the following examples:

  • 'tis but a scratch
  • I am but a small voice

Only one idea is given in each sentence. What is the correct meaning?


'tis but a scratch

I would assume it means "this is anything except a scratch" because, since this information is omitted, no matter what it is it isn't a scratch. This interpretation does not match with the context where I've seen it used so far. On the contrary, it seems to mean that "this wound is only a scratch".

I am but a small voice

I am but a small voice is a message in the song from Roger Whittaker.

Using the same approach it could mean I am not a small voice (no matter what I am). A small voice means it's sound is low. It is often synonymous to the inner voice that I can only hear myself. In the context of Roger Whittaker's work "I am but a small voice" means to have a big audience and the words are reaching everyone, because we are all the same and singing his song with one voice.

Or, perhaps "I am but a small voice" is the contrast between "I am a small voice" and "We are a big voice"?

1 Answer 1


The word "but" is not always a conjunction.

The first definition under 'ADVERB' at Lexico is

No more than; only.

If you substitute "only" or "no more than" for "but" the meanings become clear:

'tis only a scratch
I am no more than a small voice

Nowadays this adverbial usage is most often seen in "to name but a few". Lexico has several examples.

[Glorfindel has edited your question to insert the apostrophes which are used to indicate the omission of the letter i from It is and it is: 'Tis and 'tis.]

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