How to use contrast and concession linkers

Alex Case
Reviewing connectors of contrast and concession, with important differences between: however, but, although, though, even though, while, whereas, in spite of, in contrast, on the other hand, on the contrary

Expressions connecting contrasting points like “However” and “Though” are vital for looking at both sides of an argument, politely disagreeing, etc. However, they can be difficult to use correctly, especially due to the differences between them. This article reviews and contrasts the most common such linking words and phrases.

“However” vs “but”

“However” and “but” are the most general contrasting connectors, and so can be used to replace of all of the linking expressions below. Their main difference is that “However” links two sentences (as in “His garden is beautiful. However, his house is a mess/ His house, however, is a mess/ His house is a mess, however”), so “However” often starts with a capital letter. In contrast, starting sentences with “But” is informal and often considered wrong. Instead, “but” links two ideas in one sentence (often after a comma, as in “There are three students, but only two chairs”).

“Although” vs “but”

The most obvious difference between “Although” and “but” is that “Although” can be used at the beginning of the sentence contrasting the two things, as in “Although we wanted to go somewhere hot, we could only afford a weekend in Brighton” to mean “We wanted to go somewhere hot, but we could only afford a weekend in Brighton”.  

Another difference is that “Although” only links things which are logically connected (making it a connector of concession rather than contrast). For example, you can say “My friends are all tall, but I am short” but you can’t say “Although my friends are all tall, I am short” X. In contrast, “Although my parents are both tall, I am short” might be okay, because there is a connection between heights of family members.  

“Although” vs “Though”

“Though” can be used in every example with “Although” above. In addition, it can be used to link two sentences and/ or at the end of a sentence, as in “I didn’t mean to hurt him. I couldn’t help it, though”.

“Although” and “Though” vs “Even though”

“Even though” has the same grammar and basic meaning as “Although”, but is a stronger phrase, often suggesting surprising contrasts like “Even though he had seven years to finish his PhD, he still got an extension”. It doesn’t have the extra uses of “though” above, so it is more similar to “although”.

“While” and “Whilst” vs “Although” and “Though”

“While” is used in the same positions as “Although”, but “while” can also be used to contrast two logically unconnected things. For example, it’s okay to say “While the train has a buffet car, there are snacks on the highway bus”, but you can’t use “(Al)though” in that sentence. “While” also has a time meaning, which can make sentences like “While I ate cheese, Tom had yoghurt” confusing.

“Whilst” is a rarer word with the same uses as “while”.

“Whereas” vs “However” and “but”

Like “while”, “whereas” has quite a general meaning and so can replace “on the other hand”, “in contrast”, etc. A peculiarity of “whereas” is that it is only used to compare two different things, usually meaning that different grammatical subjects are needed before and after “whereas”. For example, we can say “I like cheese whereas he hates it” but not “I like cheese whereas I hate milk” X.

“In spite of” and “Despite” vs “(Al)though”

“Despite” and “In spite of” are basically the same. This is why “Despite of” X is wrong, because it would mean “In spite of of” X. They have the same meaning as “(Al)though”, including needing a logical link between the two things in the sentence. However, “Despite”/ “In spite of” is followed by a noun or -ing, as in “Despite the rain/ In spite of it raining/ Although it was raining, we went for a walk”.

“In contrast” and “By contrast”

“In/ By (complete) contrast” can only be used with big differences, something shown by the optional middle word in brackets “(complete)”. You therefore can’t say “I weigh 71 kg. In contrast, he weighs 70 kg”.

“On the other hand”

As can be seen in the common accompanying gestures, the hands in “On the one hand,… On the other hand,…”  represent scales weighing up both sides of an argument. This is done to reach a conclusion such as which option is better, so “on the other hand” is often followed by phrases continuing the scales metaphor like “The advantages of… outweigh the disadvantages”.

“On the other hand” vs “In contrast”

These are often confused, but are very different. “On the other hand” weighs up whether there are more pros than cons, if Plan A is better or Plan B is better, etc. This can be shown by putting out one hand, putting up your second hand on the other side of your body, miming weighing up the two sides, then choosing the stronger side. “In contrast” just means that things are very different, so the gesture is much less common but would be the very different one of stretching your two hands as far away from each other as you can, like showing “opposite” (without the subsequent stages of weighing up).  

“Nevertheless” and “Nonetheless” vs “On the other hand” etc

If we say “It is cheap. On the other hand, we will need to replace it very often”, we don’t necessarily know which side the conclusion will be on. In contrast, we know that the stronger side of the argument/ conclusion will follow “It was a dark night. Nevertheless/ Nonetheless,…”

“On the contrary”

“On the contrary” has the very specific meaning that the previous thing is not actually true, as in “Many people think that cigarettes help people relax. On the contrary, smoking merely takes away the extra stress caused back the short-term withdrawal from nicotine”.

“On the contrary” vs “In (complete) contrast”

These two are often confused, perhaps because they are both strong. They are completely different. “On the contrary” means that the previous point is wrong, whereas “in contrast” just means that the two things are very different (but the first statement is still true). They can never replace each other in correct sentences (though both can be replaced by “However” or “but”).

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Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers

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