A story in this morning’s Times got my linguistic juices flowing. It’s about a female Marine Corps colonel who’s being drummed out of the Corps for, among other things, not following the chain of command.

The colonel, Kate Germano (which I misread as Geronimo), improved shooting abilities and physical outcomes for female recuits. Who doesn’t want a Marine who can hit a target and carry 60 or more pounds?

Late in the story, one of Germano’s fellow officers says she was “firm but fair.” It’s the “but” that caught my eye.

As everyone should know, “but” is a conjunction that joins contrary ideas. It’s not like “and.” “I’m happy and glad,” he said. You’d never say: “I’m happy, but glad.”

What I don’t see is how being firm is the opposite of being fair. This reminds me of my teaching days when students would refer to a professor (usually me) as “tough but fair.” In my mind, they are co-equal, to be joined by “and,” not “but.”

I often wondered why students would talk like that and what they were going to do in the real world, but I’ll leave that for another day.