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I've been told that in Russian, there are at least two ways of saying "but." One is a, and the other is но. They both translate into the same word but (a or но?) they appear to have two somewhat different meanings, which is to say that they are used in different contexts. What is the difference?

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    You haven't listed the third variant: "but" as synonym of "except" which are mainly translated as "кроме": "nobody but him" - "никто, кроме него". – Netch Apr 18 '13 at 6:07
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But can be translated into Russian as а or но, depending on the context. А can be translated into English as but or and, depending on the context. Let's examine the most typical situations, without pretending that the following list is complete :)

  1. The conjunction но contrasts actions, objects and their characteristics.

    Я не живу в России, но хорошо говорю по-русски. I don't live in Russia, but I speak Russian well.

    Стены были деревянные, но крепкие. The walls were wooden, but strong.

    Indeed, I will agree with GSerg that in this case но has connotations of however, nonetheless.

  2. The conjunction а is used to give a more accurate description of an object or action, rather than to contrast them.

    Стол не стеклянный, а деревянный. The table is not made of glass, but of wood.

    Ему не десять лет, а одиннадцать. He's not ten years old, but eleven.

  3. a, is used when one clause contradicts the other clause. Но is used when they simply contrast.

    Я попросил его купить сметану, а он купил молоко. I asked him to buy sour-cream, but he bought milk.

    Они жили вместе, но не разговаривали друг с другом. They lived together, but didn't speak to each other

    Now, in the two examples above, one could replace a with но and vice versa. That wouldn't make the sentences incorrect, just a bit clumsy. It all boils down to whether you want to emphasize contrast or contradiction.

  4. a is used as contrasting and, meaning whereas, while.

    У Маши было три сестры, а у Пети четыре. Masha had three sisters, and/whereas Petya had four.

    Я живу в Италии, а мой брат в Швеции. I live in Italy, and/whereas my brother lives in Switzerland.

    In these examples you couldn't replace а with и

    Родители уехали на дачу, а дети остались дома. The parents went to dacha, and/whereas the kids stayed home.

    In this example you could replace a with но, but the meaning would change to but

    Родители уехали на дачу, но дети остались дома. The parents went to dacha, but the kids stayed home. (implies that this is somehow a surprise, a contradiction)

  5. A is used in situations when you state something about something, and request a similar something about something else :) sort of... This meaning can be translated as and into English, or not translated at all.

    Меня зовут Василий. А тебя? My name is Vasiliy. What's yours? (And what's yours?)

    Вот мой дом. А где твой? Here's my house. Where's yours? (And where's yours?)

  6. A can be used to change the subject, meaning something like by the way.

    А у нас в здании пожар был вчера. (By the way, we had a fire in our building yesterday).

    In most situations, the choice between а, and но is rather unambiguous. But, as with everything, there are certain corner cases where two conjunctions are possible, with slight, if any, differences in meaning. For example:

    Меня попросили подождать, а я не подождал. I was asked to wait, but I didn't.

    Меня попросили подождать, но я не подождал. I was asked to wait, but I didn't.

    The first version underlines the contradiction more than the second, but there is really very slight, if any difference in meaning.

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  • 1
    Nice answer. I would just add in part 2 that "не... а" is a common form but "не... но" is not permissible. – Jen I May 21 '19 at 20:58
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Actually, "a" is quite close to "and" in this regard. "Но" has a much stronger sense of negation and confrontation with the preceding statement.

"Я спокойный человек, но если меня разозлят..." (I'm a calm person, but if somebody pisses me off...) suggests that his reaction will not be calm.

While "Я спокойный человек, а если меня разозлят..." (I'm a calm person, and if somebody pisses me off...) suggests something like "I'll reason with them and explain why they're wrong".

"Анна пошла в школу а Миша остался дома" (Anna went to school and Misha stayed home) just tells you what they did. But "Анна пошла в школу, но Миша остался дома" (Anna went to school but Misha stayed home) really emphasizes the fact that he stayed home as opposed to her.

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4

Word однако is equal to но (but). It gives some old-style coloration and can be used to stress this word in the sentence.

There are many other words that can be used instead of но: так, дык (not a formal word), да and many more. In some cases но can even be omitted.

  • Хотел поспать, но не получилось.
  • Хотел поспать, однако не получилось.
  • Хотел поспать, так не получилось.
  • Хотел поспать, дык не получилось.
  • Хотел поспать, да не получилось.
  • Хотел поспать, не получилось.
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3

Но generally means however.

А (when used as "but," because а has lots of meanings in other contexts) doesn't mean that, and can be used when you don't want to say "however," but do want to say there is a difference.

However, if your thought doesn't have two parts separated with "but," you want to use но. Using а as "but" requires a bit of context, and given the lack of context, it's going to be но. Note: the context may span several sentences. Note: the context may even be implied.
Examples of when но must be used, but doesn't mean "however" (because the is no context of comparing):

  • When you don't know how to respond and can only repeat "But... but...".
  • "But mom!.."
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