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Hello Word People,
I can’t seem to find the etymology for a certain way of using the word “except”. I thought of it while working on a translation that includes a sentence something like this:
The name might not have been so fresh in his mind if it weren’t that his colleague had taken the man’s death particularly hard.
My editor has suggested replacing the conjunction “if it weren’t that” with “except that”, as in:
The name might not have been so fresh in his mind except that his colleague had taken the man’s death particularly hard.
For some reason this use of “except” to mean “if it weren’t that” or “if not for the fact that” sounds colloquial to my ear, like something adopted only recently and not yet accepted in formal writing. It actually sounds to me like it doesn’t quite mean the same thing as “if it weren’t that”. It somehow seems like a non sequitur in this context, although I realize that it is sometimes used this way. Is this just my own quirk, or am I sensing something general about the usage that I can’t quite put my finger on? I’ve looked in an online OED, but it doesn’t seem to include any entry for precisely this use of the word.
Merriam-Webster online shows “I would go except that it’s too far” which, to my ear, is exactly the usage you are questioning. I would suggest (and this is not intended as criticism – I don’t know you or your background) that it’s not that this usage is colloquial, it’s that except has broader uses than you give it credit for or are accustomed to. I know I’ve fallen into that pit with other words myself. Your editor’s suggestion seems reasonable; it’s a style choice.
Tromboniator is correct, I believe. I think it’s just a matter of editorial style too. I write for a couple periodicals and have run into that many times. Might just be that my editors are Gen X & Y, and I’m a Boomer.
That said, there could be a difference in meaning depending on the context for that sentence. I’m unclear whether “the name” refers to “his colleague” or the “man who died.” What exactly was the context, lolarusa?
IMHO, your editor’s insertion of “except” in place of “if it weren’t” is as ambiguous as your original. Here’s the issue …
I see the possible confusion of: Why was the name was so fresh in his mind? Was the writer’s empathy/memory toward “his colleague, or toward “the man who died.” It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but I’m sure the context would clear that up.
Iolarusa, you are not alone. ‘Non sequitur’ it is. Still, in the end people like you and me need to go with the prevailing trend.
Still, I find it interesting that many dictionaries still have not listed that usage, and at least one lists it only as ‘idiom.’ Matter of fact, no matter how sure I am of the great frequency of that usage, I am hard pressed to recall any specific authoritative instances. Maybe a great many writers out there do have the same reservation you and I have, Iolarusa.
There are ample instances of a similar usage, equivalent to ‘unless,’ that seems generally considered archaic:
Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.