language corner

Absent Without Leave

Is it OK to use "absent" as a preposition?
July 21, 2008

John Cochran, a writer-editor for the federal government, writes:

Here’s a construction I don’t like: ‘Absent some better way … ‘ I’m not sure why, but that use of ‘absent’ really rubs me the wrong way. Thoughts?

“Absent” is mostly an adjective or a transitive verb. Absent any other evidence, it’s apparent that Mr. Cochran objects to its use as a preposition in place of “without” or “in the absence of.”

It often appears at the beginning of a sentence, but, like any preposition, it can go anywhere (yes, even at the end of a sentence, Churchillians be damned). Because it most frequently appears in a legalistic context, like judicial opinions, there’s some speculation that its use began in England, where much of our legal jargon originated.

But it’s purely American, and, as is the case with so many things American, it’s not fully accepted as “real” by many English people.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites a first appearance in 1944 and calls it “quasi-prep.,” which is Oxfordian for “it is not really a preposition, but go ahead and use it as such if you insist.” The New Oxford American Dictionary lists it as a plain preposition, but for “formal” use. (Don’t the American and British dictionaries talk to each another? Can’t they at least get their stories straight?)

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Because it’s so new, you can actually trace a lot of its history. In Webster’s New World Dictionary Second College Edition, published in 1982, “absent” as a preposition is, well, absent. But by the 1991 publication of the Third College Edition, there it is, announced with the star that means “Americanism.”

Webster’s New World, it appears, is a little slow: Many other (American) dictionaries embrace “absent” unironically, giving no hint of its quasi-legal status or its struggle for recognition.

So should you use it? I’ll (reluctantly) go with the British here: use it, if you must. But what’s wrong with plain, ordinary “without”?

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.