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TWTS: When someone without wants in

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If you’re within your car, you’re inside it. If you’re without your car, did you leave your car at home or are you standing outside it?

Erich Kupferschmidt recently asked why “without” isn’t used to describe location:

“I came across the use of 'without' as meaning 'outside' in ancient history, indicating that it once was used as the opposite of within, and wondered where the change in usage might have occurred.”

Erich is correct that “without” in the meaning of “not having” is much more common, you can still find it used as multiple parts of speech to mean “outside of.”

“Outside of” is actually the earliest meaning of “without” in Old English. The more familiar meaning of “not having” showed up early on, and it’s not hard to see how that could’ve happened. If something is outside of the group, it’s absent — therefore, you don’t have it.

Standard dictionaries do list “outside of” as a meaning for “without” but don’t note that it’s archaic or nonstandard. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “not having,” as in “a family without a car”; “not accompanied by,” as in “speaking without thinking,” and “at, on, to, or toward the outside or exterior of,” as in “standing without the door.”

For many speakers, saying something like “standing without the door” or “the dog is without the house” wouldn’t feel colloquial. There’s just something about that prepositional use that feels odd.

How about something like “a sturdy structure, within and without?” Or “alliances either in Italy or without?” In both these cases, “without” is used as an adverb and probably feels a little more natural.

To hear some examples of “without” used as other parts of speech, listen to the audio above.

Here’s another example that may feel less awkward: “A parish situated partly within and partly without the boundary.” This time, “without” is used prepositionally but is less likely to cause confusion as opposed to the door and dog examples.

It’s definitely much more common to see “without” in the meaning of “not having” as opposed to “outside.” However, “without” is used as multiple parts of speech.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.