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Please explain 'notwithstanding', only in terms of the adverb 'not' and the root verb 'withstand'.

[ Grammarist: ] Notwithstanding is mainly a preposition meaning in spite of. Most dictionaries also list it as an adverb meaning nevertheless, but this sense is rarely used in modern English. Notwithstanding is always one word, and this has been the standard spelling for many centuries.

Although notwithstanding usually means exactly the same as in spite of, it is often positioned differently. In spite of always comes before its object—e.g., “In spite of your feedback, I’m not changing anything.” But notwithstanding is often postpositive, meaning it comes after its object—e.g., “Your feedback notwithstanding, I’m not changing anything.” Of course, it can come before its object as well—e.g., “Notwithstanding your feedback, I’m not changing anything.”

This answer substantiates the quote overhead, and explains that:

  1. Notwithstanding X, Y (happens).
  2. = X notwithstanding, Y.
  3. = X canNOT withstand Y.

But why don't 1 and 2 differ in signification? Why doesn't the position of 'notwithstanding' affect its signification?

  • 1
    1. notwithstanding has an existence, meaning and usage of its own, its etymology notwithstanding. – Kris Feb 26 '15 at 6:43
  • 2. notwithstanding is associated with Y in both instances (5, 6) whatsa prob then? – Kris Feb 26 '15 at 6:45
  • 3. "X happens, nevertheless, Y happens." may be syntactically valid but fails to make unambiguous sense to me. – Kris Feb 26 '15 at 6:45
  • We also have Linguistics a few blocks from ELU. – Kris Feb 26 '15 at 6:46
  • @Kris Thank you! I had forgotten about it until your recommendation. I enlarge the scope of this question to include « nonobstant » in French: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/11550/5306 – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Feb 26 '15 at 15:32
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The appearance and behavior of notwithstanding are pretty odd—and they seem odder the more you look at the word. In the first place, withstand doesn't mean, as you might suppose from adding with to stand, "stand with," but rather "stand against." In this respect, the with- component functions like the with- in withdraw ("draw against") or in withhold ("hold against"), and not like the with- in withal ("together with").

The not- component makes sense in constructions of the type "Y is true, X notwithstanding," where we can infer that the sense is "Y is true, and under scrutiny X does not stand against it." But when we flip the construction around to say "Y is true, notwithstanding X," it is easy (albeit erroneous) to imagine that the statement logically means "Y is true, and under scrutiny it does not stand against X"—which doesn't make sense if X and Y tend in opposite directions.

What's going on here? Let's pick up the thread from Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, third edition (2009):

notwithstanding is a FORMAL WORD, used in the sense "despite," "in spite of," or "although." E.g., "Notwithstanding an outpouring of editorial opinion on either side of this issue, there are no easy answers." [Citation omitted.]

The question that literalists ask [about notwithstanding] is, What doesn't withstand what else? Is the outpouring of opinion "not withstanding" (i.e., subordinated to) the lack of easy answers, or is the lack of easy answers "not withstanding" (subordinated to) the outpouring of editorial opinion? Because the former is the correct reading, some believe that notwithstanding should be sent to the end of the phrase in which it appears: The family's objection to the marriage notwithstanding, as opposed to Notwithstanding the family's objection to the marriage.

But the literalist argument is very much in vain, as the OED attests with a 14th-century example of notwithstanding as a sentence starter. This usage has been constant since from the 1300s to the present day. In fact, the construction with notwithstanding following the noun first appeared more than a century later, and has never been as frequent. ...

p 993 of the book itself (but p 497 of the online viewer with the scroller at the bottom),
Ernest Weekley, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, volume 2 (1921), offers this brief account:

notwithstanding. From not and withstand, to oppose, the word now app[ears] governed by the prep[osition] being really the subject of the verb, e.g. notwithstanding this is "this is not opposing." Cf. archaic F[rench] nonobstant, L[atin] non obstante (abl[ative] absolute).
[Early example:] Not that withstanding she ansuered in this manere
([cited in] N[ew] E[nglish] D[ictionary, Oxford, 1884] ca. 1500).

And finally, Wilfred Funk, Word Origins (1950) has this:

When a man finds himself faced with a lot of stubborn obstacles in some business project, he will occasionally make a decision that nevertheless and notwithstanding these handicaps he is still going ahead. At one time the word with meant "against," and so our entrepreneur is going to take his gamble notwithstanding, or, in other words, "no matter what stands against him."

So both "notwithstanding X" and "X notwithstanding" mean "in spite of X"; within that clause, notwithstanding is position-independent and aligns against X regardless of which element comes first in the clause. If that seems confusing, imagine how a person in medieval England would have felt if told by a dangerous-looking armed man, "You're either with us or against us!"

  • +1. Thanks. 1. The following concerns the last sentence of your 2nd para: Would you please clarify your meaning of which doesn't make sense if X and Y tend in opposite directions? I've seen 'tend to/towards', but not 'tend IN'? 2. Also, I don't understand the metaphor in the last sentence. Please explain? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal May 31 '15 at 4:06
  • 2. Also, I don't understand the metaphor in the last sentence. Please explain? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal May 31 '15 at 4:08
  • 3. Sorry for this quantity, but in your 4th last para, what's the antecedent of 'this word' in From not and withstand, to oppose, the word ? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal May 31 '15 at 4:09
  • 1. My point here is that it doesn't make sense to say that Y is true and yet to say that it doesn't stand up to X, if X runs counter to Y—that is if X denies the validity of Y either directly or by implication ("tendency"). 2. The last line imagines a time when, as Wilfred Funk says in the last quote "the word with meant 'against'." In that case, if someone said "you're either with us or against us," the statement would amount to saying "you're either against us or against us"—not something you'd want to hear from dangerous-looking armed men. (It's a word-play joke, you see). ... – Sven Yargs May 31 '15 at 8:22
  • ... 3. In Weekley's quote, "From not and withstand, to oppose, the word now app[ears] ..." the words "to oppose" define withstand, which appears one word earlier in the sentence; "the word" refers to notwithstanding, which is the bolded entry header immediately preceding the sentence in question. – Sven Yargs May 31 '15 at 8:27

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