When without = unless

In A. L. Barker’s darkly comic novel John Brown’s Body (1965) there is a use of the word without that’s fairly unusual nowadays:

She moaned, curling deeper into the dark. Nothing was finished or forgettable. Jack said that everyone went off balance sometime – at spiders or red rags or, in his case, temperance hotels. But this thing of hers was so almighty that she would have prayed to it if it would have done any good, asked to be let off a little, excused just enough to make it endurable. Painlessness she did not expect, not without she died and was born another person, but a little less cruelty, a grain of consciousness – the final humiliation was in not knowing herself – this she would have begged and prayed for if she thought anyone or anything was listening. [my underlines]

This use of without is listed in the OED at C2: ‘by omission of that, simply as a conjunction: If..not, except, unless. Also, chiefly in U.S. dial. use: unless, without its being the case that.’ It has examples as far back as 1393, then from Shakespeare and Tennyson among others, and elaborates as follows:

Formerly common in literary use, most frequently with verb in subjunctive; later colloq. (‘not in use, except in conversation’, Johnson 1755) or arch., and now chiefly illiterate. Often replaceable by the const. with gerund (B. 11), e.g. without he be compelled = ‘without being compelled’; esp. with clause referring to an attendant circumstance or result rather than a condition…

a l barker - john brown's body - arena book coverSo Barker’s phrase ‘not without she died and was born…’ could be recast as ‘not without dying and being born…’. But Samuel Johnson’s note that it was ‘not in use’ in writing was premature.

Robert Burchfield’s revision of Fowler says without = unless was in standard literary use from the 14th–17thC but has since become restricted ‘to regional or demotic speech in the UK and Ireland, and is also liable to turn up in the sense “without its being the case that” in regional or working-class speech in America and elsewhere.’ Burchfield quotes literary examples of the two related senses:

Everything she looked at was that child . . . She couldn’t lie with that man without she saw it. (Frank O’Connor, 1955)

You see, Father, our parents won’t let us outside without we put our uniforms on. (Hilary Mantel, 1989)

I can truthfully say he never sat an exam without he was bad with his asthma. (Pat Barker, 1991)

You couldn’t do business without you keep a record of receipts. (William Trevor, 1994)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage describes the use of without to mean ‘unless’ as ‘once perfectly respectable’, but finds that since the late 19thC it has occurred only ‘rarely in print except in representations of illiterate or dialectal speech’:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (Mark Twain, 1884)

‘There ain’t none in the oil-shed, that I do know – without there might be a bit in the wash’us – but it’ll have been there a long time,’ she concluded dubiously. (Dorothy Sayers, 1937)

Further commentary appears in the Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage, which calls it ‘dialectal and Nonstandard at best’, and advises: ‘Stick with unless.’ Fowler (1926) says it is ‘good old English, but bad modern English – one of the things that many people say, but few write; it should be left to conscious stylists who can rely on their revivals’ not being taken for vulgarisms.’

Despite Burchfield saying the usage had currency in ‘regional or demotic speech in the UK and Ireland’, I don’t remember hearing it in vernacular speech here. I’d be interested to know if any readers use it or have heard it where they live.

A. L. Barker’s book, incidentally, appeared in a recent bookmash on this blog: Trespass in a Strange Room. A. S. Byatt in the UK Times called it an ‘extraordinary novel [that] deserves to be read, every word, with the precise and contemplative attention with which it was written’. Martin Seymour-Smith in the Financial Times said there was ‘no better living woman writer in the English Language’ – a back-handed compliment if ever I saw one.

12 Responses to When without = unless

  1. Harry Lake says:

    Personally I have never rated Burchfield very highly since I heard him and Marghanita Laski pooh-pooh a young boy’s query on an early (1970s) phone-in programme. The boy had asked why some people said ‘the flu’ while others said just ‘flu’. B. and L. told him he must have misheard…

    • Stan Carey says:

      That seems unfairly dismissive of them. But I’m surprised you’ve managed to hold it against him for more than 40 years!

      • Harry Lake says:

        Fair comment, but there have been other things in the meantime, including stuff in Fowler. However, my memory has never been very good and it’s not getting any better! You’d have to press me if you want evidence; and then you’d have to wait a while…

  2. I love this use of ‘without’ (‘not without she died and was born…’) and if I ever have occasion to remember to use it somewhere, I plan to. Perhaps because I am part Irish…

  3. astraya says:

    I know this only from Huckleberry Finn. I’m not going to attempt to use it; it would feel and sound quite unnatural.
    During the week I stumbled across Warsaw Will’s language/ESL teaching blog. (I can’t believe that I hadn’t previously encountered it.) He’s got a thing for ‘outwith’.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Random Idea English is an excellent ELT blog.

      • astraya says:

        After finding my way to it via another route, I then noticed that you’ve got a link to it just to the right of here. I have followed most of your links at least once, but for some reason not that one. There’s a snowball effect when following links on language blogs. You’ve got 39 language blogs and 29 language links, and they all have multiple links etc.

      • astraya says:

        PS I’m working my way through his archives at the moment.

      • Stan Carey says:

        I know what you mean. I subscribe to well over a hundred language/linguistics blogs, and sometimes trying to keep up is just futile. Luckily they’re not all very active.

  4. John Cowan says:

    I read the beginning of your last paragraph as referring to a novel by Barker named Trespass in a Strange Room, and was quite puzzled when [Barker “Trespass in a Strange Room” -spine] found nothing! It finally dawned on me what you meant….

    • Stan Carey says:

      I could have phrased that line better, John! But I am pleased to see how well, or at least plausibly, the first two titles in the book spine poem go together. I finished Trespass this weekend, incidentally. Sometimes featuring a book in a bookmash pushes it up the to-read list.

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