The Grammarphobia Blog

Exceptions make the rules

Q: When I intend to exclude something, I simply say “except,” as in “I finished everything except the math homework.” But I often hear people say “except for.” Which is correct?

A: In the example you give, either “except” or “except for” is OK: “I finished everything except [or “except for”] the math homework.”

Both “except” and “except for” can mean “with the exception of.” But “except for” can also mean something like “if it weren’t for.” When you can’t make up your mind, here are some suggestions that might help.

If you mean “but,” then you can use either “except” or “except for,” as in this example: “Everyone except [or “except for”] Bob had left.” However, if you cannot substitute “but,” use “except for,” as in this example: “The office would have been empty except for Bob.”

Here are two more general rules:

(1) Use “Except for” at the beginning of a sentence: “Except for Aunt Martha, everyone brought a gift.” But in mid-sentence, either is fine if you mean “but”: “Everyone brought a gift except [or “except for”] Aunt Martha.”

(2) Use “except” before a preposition: “It rained except in the city” or “I had no choice except to go.”

Unfortunately, English can be messy. This is a case where one rule won’t cover all occasions. But these tips will help solve most problems with “except” vs. “except for.”

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