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summary

'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.

details

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?

attempts

'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

3

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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