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I am not a native English speaker/writer, but I am working on a technical thesis written in English. To me, for some unknown reason, it feels natural to write the following:

However, the simplicity of the theory implies that it is not possible in reality, lest someone would surely have already done it.

Googling for the definition of lest seems to imply that this is not a correct usage.

So, can I use lest like I do, and if not, do any of you also feel there is any merit to my spontaneous feeling that it actually is ok to use it here? The first answer of this post (Is this usage of "lest" possible?) seems to support my case, but i am not sure.

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  • If there is already a similar question, then do link to it. There's no harm in asking another question but it's good practice to say why the earlier one doesn't help.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 10, 2015 at 15:25
  • Of course! facepalm Editing right away!
    – mickey
    Jan 10, 2015 at 15:51
  • Generally you should avoid using "lest" if you're not comfortable with how it's being used. It's an essentially archaic word that is mainly used in certain set phrases and situations. You should probably use something like "or else" in the above sentence.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 11, 2015 at 13:16

3 Answers 3

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Two things.

  1. Lest is always followed by the subjunctive mood. ODO's example is

    he spent whole days in his room, wearing headphones lest he disturb anyone

    Your example doesn't do this, nor can it.

  2. Lest is a conjunction and means "to avoid the risk of" (ODO), and generally that phrase can be slotted in, adjusting the verb from the subjunctive mood:

    he spent whole days in his room, wearing headphones to avoid the risk of disturbing anyone

    Your example doesn't seem to be able to have this phrase inserted.

I think that what your sentence is intended to mean is

However, the simplicity of the theory implies that it is not possible in reality, or else someone would surely have already done it.

Another way of putting that would be to use otherwise. You are stating how that theory is proved (that is, it's supportive corroboration); you're not stating how a risk might be avoided (a negative result).

The confusion might be because ODO's example could also use otherwise:

he spent whole days in his room wearing headphones, otherwise he might have disturbed someone

However, this doesn't mean that otherwise and lest are generally interchangeable. To determine which to use, substitute either to avoid the risk of or or else.

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  • Ah, i see! Is this clear as crystal or as mud to a native speaker (i.e. not language gurus like yourselves)? Why on earth does it sound ok to my ear (other than me being a native swedish speaker)? Have you ever heard people use lest wrong, like in movies or television series? When I wrote it i realized that I probably never read it even once in my entire life, so I must have heard it in such case.
    – mickey
    Jan 10, 2015 at 19:14
  • I don't believe I have ever heard lest used wrongly, and certainly (I'm afraid, sorry) not how you have in your example.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 10, 2015 at 19:58
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    Hehe, no need to be sorry! I'm actually quite proud over the fact that I feel confident enough to write here at all! At least it is only natural for me to not know everything there is to know about the english language. It is still more embarrasing when british youngsters think "I have" is spelled "I of". Thanks for a gentle introduction to this SE :)
    – mickey
    Jan 10, 2015 at 21:08
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    Anyway, better shut up now, lest i offend you guys ;)
    – mickey
    Jan 10, 2015 at 21:10
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I don't think it's correct. Lest tends to mean "for fear that," as in Centaurus's example:

He doesn't dare leave the hotel [for fear that] he should be recognized.

That doesn't really work in your sentence:

However, the simplicity of the theory implies that it is not possible in reality, [for fear that] someone would surely have already done it.

The use of "unless" seems out of place as well.

However, the simplicity of the theory implies that, in reality, it is not possible unless someone has already done it.

The last part of the sentence, "... it is not possible unless someone has already done it," implies that it is only possible if someone has already done it, which very well may be true. But I don't think that's the intended meaning of the sentence.

I think the word you're searching for is otherwise:

However, the simplicity of the theory implies that it is not possible in reality; otherwise [if it were possible], someone would surely have already done it.

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  • "Otherwise" was a good guess, +1 (more if I could)
    – Centaurus
    Jan 10, 2015 at 16:49
  • @EFrog I awarded the solution to Andrew, since he cleared up my confusion regarding otherwise being a possible synonym for lest, but not the other way around. Thanks for your answer though which i upvoted!
    – mickey
    Jan 10, 2015 at 19:09
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Clauses introduced by "lest" are similar to purpose clauses. "Lest" means "for fear that" and is followed by should + infinitive.

  • "He doesn't dare leave the hotel lest he should be recognized."

  • "He didn't dare leave the hotel lest he should be recognized.

In your sentence "lest" must be followed by "should" instead of "would". Without more context, I would rewrite your sentence and use "unless" instead.

  • "However, the simplicity of the theory implies that, in reality, it is not possible, unless someone has already done it."
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    Lest is (as Andrew writes in his answer) more commonly followed by the present subjunctive—one of the few cases where even British English tends to retain the present subjunctive, rather than paraphrasing with should + infinitive. Jan 10, 2015 at 17:07

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