The grammaticization of 'but' as a final particle in English conversation

Jean Mulder (Melbourne) and Sandra A. Thompson (University of California, Santa Barbara)

In contemporary Australian fiction, ending a turn with but is becoming stereotyped as distinctive of Australian English (Mulder 2002). Here is an example:

(1) Bradley slapped the tops of his thighs. "Mine accident," he said. "Both legs buggered for good. Compo's coming through, but."

I nodded. "No hope?" I said. "Physio? Operation?"

"Stuffed," he said. "Mind you, I miss the fishing more than the bloody work.

O'Fear . (Peter Corris (1991:100))

Fascinated to know to what extent this might reflect spoken conversation, and whether it might not be restricted to Australia, we began making a collection of examples from various varieties of spoken English. The following example is from two teenage Australian girls:

(2) A: We've had new people join our [group].

B: [yeh]

A: Kylie,

she was a bit of a bitch but.

B: um.

From these data emerge three hypotheses. Firstly, in contemporary spoken English, the behaviour of but can be modelled as a continuum from a prosodic-unit-initial conjunction to a prosodic-unit-final discourse particle in a way that suggests a grammaticization process in progress. The continuum that emerges from our data can be schematized as:


initial but


Janus-faced but


final but

[IU-initial 'conjunction']

[IU-final 'discourse particle']

The usage of 'final but' in Australian English, and its grammaticization pathway, seems precisely parallel to that of though (Barth-Weingarten/Couper-Kuhlen 2002).

Secondly, we hypothesize that as but 'moves' along this continuum, its conversational function changes from that of a turn-continuing 'connective' to a turn-yielding discourse particle, in a way that is consistent with what has been described in the grammaticization literature. What we find with our American data is that both prosodically and sequentially, speakers give evidence of taking another's prior but-ending utterance as having been finished, but with an implication left 'hanging'. Sometimes they ratify the implication left hanging by the final but, and sometimes they simply go on with a turn that assumes that implication. However, our Australian data provide considerable evidence that there are many uses of 'final but' which have progressed far enough to be considered final particles. Not only are these uttered with final prosody, but the participants do not behave as if there are any implications left 'hanging'. To demonstrate these claims, we draw on contemporary data rather than historical data, considering prosody, turn organization, and interactional actions.

Thirdly, while we focus on the usage of but as a 'fully-developed' final particle in Australian English, in fact, it appears to be more widespread than this, occurring also as a feature of New Zealand English and some varieties of Scottish, Irish and British English. Drawing on historical dialectal description, we propose that 'final particle but' is more broadly a feature of 'Antipodean' English that traces its origins through colonisation and migration from the UK.


Barth-Weingarten, Dagmar and Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen. 2002. On the Development of Final though: A Case of Grammaticalization? In Wischer, Ilse and Gabriele Diewalds, eds., New Reflections on Grammaticalization, 345-361. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Mulder, Jean. 2002. The but End in Australian English. Paper presented at Australian Linguistic Society Conference, Sydney.