Let’s talk about the Russian conjunctions И, НО, and their tricky brother А. In this article, you will find descriptions of each of the three and learn how to remember them easily as a system. The illustrative materials will help you to do this as well. If you are above a beginner’s level, then you should pay close attention to the detailed examples demonstrating how these conjunctions can influence the meaning of a sentence.
Now, let’s begin with a very sad fact: The two basic English conjunctions “and” and “but” can be translated into three different Russian conjunctions: И, НО, and А. You should resign yourself to this and try your best to use them correctly because incorrect usage will offend the ear of a native Russian speaker.
- И - and
- НО - but
- А - and/but
What is even sadder is that these conjunctions can never be switched without affecting the meaning of the sentence. So you cannot simply translate “and” as И and “but” as НО and ignore the existence of А.
So, let’s start with some elementary explanations. They may seem quite elementary at first, but they probably won’t seem so simple afterwards.
The Conjunction И
This conjunction can be represented as a train:
There are three ways in which this conjunction can be used.
First of all, our train has equal wagons (train cars). In order to combine these wagons together, we can do the same thing that we do in English, except that we use the conjunction И instead of “and”:
- Влад молодой, здоровый И энергичный. Vlad is young, healthy, and energetic.
There is nothing new here.
Secondly, we can also use И to compare the wagons using a particular criterion in order to see if they are equal or very similar:
- Влад высокий, И Стас высокий. Vlad is tall, and Stas is tall (too).
The criterion here is their height, and we are checking to see if they are similar in terms of this criterion.
Finally, imagine that our lovely train has a motto: “everything is going fine.” We have the locomotive, which represents a statement. We also have the wagons, which represent a consequence. Here it is in an example:
- Задача была простая, И я её быстро решил. The problem was easy, and I solved it quickly.
In this example, our locomotive is the statement “the problem was easy.” And since it was easy, it’s logical that it was solved quickly. Therefore, the consequence “I solved it quickly” can be added to the original statement, using И to connect them. Indeed, “everything is going fine,” just as expected.
Note that all of this is the same as in English. Isn’t it wonderful?
The Conjunction НО
In this case, we can use the example of a puzzle:
If we are working on a jigsaw puzzle and have only one piece, it's logical to assume that there must be another piece that fits with it. BUT! As we can see in the picture above, this is not in fact the case. Instead of a piece that fits, we have a black piece that doesn't fit at all. We had an expectation, but we didn’t get what we expected. In other words, for the conjunction НО, we can use the motto: “hmm, something went wrong.”
- Задача очень простая, НО я её не решил. The problem was easy, but I didn’t solve it.
When you hear the statement “The problem is easy,” it’s logical to come to the conclusion that, “Oh! I’ll solve it in a few seconds!” BUT! “Something went wrong,” and our hero failed in his/her mission. In such cases, we use the conjunction НО.
Here is a more difficult example. Let’s talk about “the principle of harmony.” If you, for example, are good at physics, then you should be good at mathematics too. If a person has good character, then we expect him to be intelligent, polite, and talented all at the same time. We expect everything to be in harmony. However, look at what happens in this example:
- Он умный, НО не вежливый. He is smart but not polite.
Hmm, what? This can’t be right! He should be a complete angel! In this case, “something went wrong” again, and we can see disharmony. Therefore, the conjunction HO would be the best option.
It is the same as in English again!
The Conjunction A
This is the conjunction that doesn’t exist at all in English, or in most European languages for that matter. Read it thoroughly.
Here we are focusing on two things that are completely different. For example, if we want to compare two objects using a particular criterion, we first must determine if they are neither equal nor similar.
In this case, the symbols of the conjunction А are an angel and a devil. Indeed, these are two entities that are completely different :) Their motto is: “We exist SEPARATELY, and we are different.” Please note that the existence of the devil in this case, doesn’t contradict the possibility of the existence of the angel.
- Ангел добрый, А дьявол злой. The angel is kind, but the devil is evil.
- Влад высокий, А Маша низкая. Vlad is tall, but Masha is short.
In these examples, each of the two entities can exist in different worlds and never know about the other. For instance, the fact that Vlad is tall doesn’t mean that we expect Masha to be tall as well. In fact, we don’t have any expectations. We are comparing them by the criterion of height and discover that yes, they are different. In this case, we should use the conjunction А.
Is it difficult?
Certainly! Russian without sub-rules and exceptions is not Russian. Furthermore, in addition to the general approach mentioned above, it should also be noted that there are two other “strange” constructions that are frequently used:
Construction #1: Он НЕ высокий, А низкий.
We negate the false statement first, and then we state the correct one. You should use A in this case.
Construction #2: Он НЕ ТОЛЬКО умный, НО И вежливый. He is not only smart, but also polite.
You should use НО + И at the same time.
Comparison of the Conjunctions (for Intermediate and Advanced Students)
Let’s go a little deeper. However, let’s first take a moment to think about a possible origin of the Russian conjunction А, one rooted in the cultural differences between Western and Russian culture.
In Western culture, humanity is often considered to be the center of the world, the so-called “engine” of all processes. Humanity can influence everything. People’s actions have a distinct purpose, and all events happen for a reason and have consequences.
However, in the Russian point of view, people and animals simply exist and “move through time and space” either together or separately. Things are simply how they are, and events can sometimes “just happen.”
There is a distinct possibility that the existence of the conjunction А is related to this. Two independent subjects are simply compared without them being connected to each other. We’ll revisit this once more later.
Now let’s take a look at the following:
Sentence #1: На улице дождь, и Коля взял зонтик.
When it rains, it’s logical that a person would take an umbrella with them. It’s the reasonable expectation. The sentence above is exactly like this: Kolia has acted like a normal person. Everything is as it should be. So the conjunction used is И.
Sentence #2: На улице дождь, но Коля не взял зонтик.
Hmm… we expected that he would have taken an umbrella. However, something went wrong. All normal people go outside with umbrellas, so why didn’t Kolia do so too? Something is not correct here. It is an “unfitting consequence.” Therefore, the conjunction И is not acceptable.
However, perhaps for Kolia in particular this situation is quite normal. Maybe he has a raincoat. Maybe he believes that all real Russian Kolias should be ashamed of using an umbrella. In any case, he realizes that it is raining outside, and he makes his decision not to take an umbrella deliberately. In this example, our sentence is still: На улице дождь, но Коля не взял зонтик. [У него был плащ / Он не захотел].
Sentence #3: На улице дождь, а Коля не взял зонтик. Or [Смотри!] На улице дождь, а Коля не взял зонтик. [Он ведь будет весь мокрый!].
In this case, we have two separate pieces of information here. Remember the Russian view on life. Rain is just rain… and Kolia is just Kolia. Let’s assume that he simply didn’t know about the rain. We don’t have any expectations, nor are we expressing any contrasts, such as in the previous examples. We only have two facts. We compare them and realize that yes, it is raining, and Kolia is outside without an umbrella.
This was just one tiny example. There are many other situations to discuss. However, such a discussion would fill a decent sized book.
In conclusion, I’ll simply reiterate the keywords and mottos that you should keep in mind for each of the conjunctions:
- Everything is going fine
- Something went wrong
- Conflict between the second and first parts of the phrase, or with our expectations
- We exist separately and we are different
- No expectations
- Showing a contrast, but without any conflict.
And now, the same ideas in picture form:
Does this make sense? I hope so. Even if it seems difficult, completing an exercise with approximately fifty such phrases is usually enough to make everything clear. Good luck!