Lucas Fink

TOEFL Tuesday: Weird phrases with “but”

Have you ever been confused by the word “but?” This is a conjunction which usually means “however” or “yet.” However, students are often confused when “but” is used in idiomatic phrases. These phrases cannot be translated literally, and they can be difficult to understand! That’s why I’ve decided to make a video that explains the meaning of the different phrases that the word “but” can be used in.

“Nothing but”

This phrase means “only.” Let’s say that we have a friend called Amy, and she just started a new job. We ask her how her new boss is, and Amy says nothing but nice things about her boss. This means that Amy said only nice things about her new boss.

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Notice that the phrase “nothing but” is often followed by an adjective. In the example above, “nothing but” is followed by “nice,” which is an adjective.

“All but”

The phrase “all but” has two different meanings. You can tell which meaning it has by looking at the words that come after “all but.” When the phrase is followed by an adjective or a verb, “all but” means “almost.” For example, we could say “deserts are all but lifeless.” This means that deserts are almost lifeless, but not quite.

The second meaning of “all but” is “everything except.” This meaning is used when “all but” is followed by a noun (or a group of words that serves as a noun). For example, we could say “all but the best adapted plants die in a desert.” The phrase “the best adapted plants” serves as a noun here, so “all but” means “everything except.” So this sentence means that all plants, except for the best adapted ones, die in a desert.

“Anything but”

Finally, we have “anything but.” This phrase is also placed before an adjective, and it means “not.” So if we say “learning idioms is anything but easy,” it means that learning idioms is not easy. However, I hope that this TOEFL Tuesday video makes it a at least little easier for you! 🙂



  • Lucas Fink

    Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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