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In order to answer a question I have to take a look at a document that is not with me by the time that question was raised.

Which of these sentences is more suitable to express that idea?

  1. I am not able to answer your question without taking a look at document X;

  2. I cannot answer your question before taking a look at document X;

Feel free to suggest any other sentence that you may think appropriate.

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    Both are perfectly fine and mean basically the same thing. The difference between the two is negligible in most practical contexts. A third way of saying it is exactly as you did in your intro: “I [would] have to look at document X to [be able to] answer that”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 1 '13 at 14:59
  • In that sentence without is synonymous with before. I'm not saying that's always the case; however, both of those sentences are grammatically correct and both mean exactly the same thing. Both are acceptable formally as well. Also, I note that you have used two different verbs. These verbs are synonymous as well as cannot means am not able to. I would say that cannot is more succinct though. – Giambattista Oct 1 '13 at 15:17
  • @John Q Public: It's not really "synonymous" unless we assume the speaker does in fact have the intention and ability to look at document X. After all, there's no fundamental difference between OP's specific phrasing and "I am not able to answer your question without using terminology you won't understand". – FumbleFingers Oct 1 '13 at 16:39
  • @FumbleFingers I agree with you in your example, but in the examples posted in the question, those words are interchangeable. Perhaps that's a better way to word it as they are not true synonyms by definition. Without adding additional text to the sentence, there is no difference in meaning. I did say that that is not always the case, as seen in the preceding sentence where without does not mean before. – Giambattista Oct 1 '13 at 16:47
  • @John: Yeah - I guess it's just the connotations of "synonymous" I was quibbling about. I absolutely agree in OP's specific example, both versions of the sentence are to all intents and purposes semantically equivalent. I think it would be a bit odd to say, for example, "I can't answer without asking my now-deceased high-school teacher" (where there's no possibility of the "precondition caveat" actually being satisfied). I'm just a bit leery of saying two specific words are equivalent, when really it's the meanings of the two different statements. – FumbleFingers Oct 1 '13 at 17:35
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Technically (though this might appear pedantic) the idea that you, the speaker, are the one who must look at the document is not stated unequivocally. It might be that the enquirer needs to see the document, or it may be that there is some other reason why the speaker needs to see the document.

There are more possible interpretations: you might say something like "The answer to your question is in document X, which I must review in order to give you an answer".

However, be careful to say what you mean: "I must look at document X in order to give you an answer" might mean "I need to consult document X in order to know if I am authorized to give you the answer" or "I need to consult document X in order to know if you are authorized to have that information"- two more, quite different meanings.

We have to be careful about idiomatic speech; it is easy to convey unintended messages.

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