The Grammarphobia Blog

Does Beavis use but-heads?

Q: Is there is a term for pre-qualifying statements like “Nothing personal, but …” or “Don’t take this the wrong way, but …”? I don’t want anyone to take this personally or the wrong way, but people who use these phrases are cowards and morons.

A: Yes, there is indeed a term for back-handed statements like these: “procatalepsis.”

The word comes from post-classical Latin, and it’s defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “rhetorical figure by which an opponent’s objections are anticipated and answered.”

Sixth-century Latinists borrowed the word from the ancient Greek prokatalepsis, which literally means “seizing in advance” or “seizing beforehand.”

The less literal meaning is something like “anticipating”; the speaker opens with an expression meant to anticipate the opponent’s argument and head it off.

Nobody is fooled, of course. Someone who begins by saying “No offense, but …” or “Nothing personal, but …” is about to step on your toes, and both parties know it.

If your ancient Greek is shaky and you have trouble remembering “procatalepsis,” here’s an alternative term: “but-head.”

The lexicographer Erin McKean explains the name this way: “These contrary-to-fact phrases have been dubbed (by the Twitter user GrammarHulk and others) ‘but-heads,’ because they’re at the head of the sentence, and usually followed by ‘but.’ They’ve also been dubbed ‘false fronts,’ ‘wishwashers,’ and, less cutely, ‘lying qualifiers.’ ”

In a 2010 article in the Boston Globe (headlined “I hate to tell you: Phrases that announce ‘I’m lying’ ”), McKean includes a rich selection of but-heads. She pretty much covers the bases, with the expressions you mention and these besides:

“It’s not about the money, but …”

“It really doesn’t matter to me, but …”

“I hate to be the one to tell you this, but … ”

“I hate to say it, but …”

“I hear what you’re saying, but …”

“I’m not a racist, but …”

“I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, but …”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but …”

“Promise me you won’t get mad, but…”

“It’s (really) none of my business, but …”

“I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, but …”

We might add another example that’s become extremely popular lately. This one has no “but,” and it can’t be called procatalepsis because it usually comes after the irritating statement: “Just sayin’” (let’s invent a term for this: “postcatalepsis”).

To be fair, though, the impulse to use phrases like these is understandable.

“It would be nice if we all stood behind our words instead of erecting walls of disclaimers in front of them,” McKean says. “But it’s also human to want to mitigate people’s reactions when we say something negative.”

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