I do not in particular understand the use of the word "but" in the last sentence:

Almost every man wastes part of his life in attempts to display qualities which he does not possess, and to gain applauses which he cannot keep; so that scarcely can two persons meet, but one is offended or diverted by the ostentation of the other. - Samuel Johnson

What is the meaning of the word "but" in this context? Is Johnson stating that because people attempt to be what they cannot be, whenever they interact, one annoys another in the process of attempting to display these qualities?

  • 5
    "But one is" in this sense, means "without one being".
    – Hot Licks
    May 2, 2016 at 21:17
  • 1
    Yes, to your last question. Everyone is ostentatious, and others are annoyed by this.
    – Drew
    May 2, 2016 at 23:34

4 Answers 4


This is an old-fashioned use of the word but to mean something like "without".

  1. [with negative] archaic Without it being the case that:
    'it never rains but it pours'
    Oxford Dictionary Online

So the second half of the quote could be restated as

...so that almost every time two people meet, one of them will be offended by the ostentation of the other.

  • Yes, that restatement (reversing the negative) also works quite well.
    – MetaEd
    May 2, 2016 at 21:31

This usage of "but" is a bit archaic. When an expression of impossibility or unlikelihood combined with "but", but phrase or clause introduced by the "but" describes an exception to the previously stated rule. As Macmillan puts it:

  1. used after negative statements for saying that something does not happen without something else happening or being true

Macmillan designates this usage "formal", but I'm sticking with "archaic".

In your quote, therefore,

scarcely can two persons meet

is the expression of unlikelihood, and

but one is offended or diverted by the ostentation of the other.

is the exception to that unlikelihood. That is, Johnson asserts that meetings characterized by one person being offended or diverted by the ostentation of the other are not scarce, in fact, he's saying that such meetings are the overwhelming norm.

Note that that is similar to what you said, but not quite the same. Johnson does not assert that when two people meet, one of them always is offended or diverted by the other. Rather, he asserts that the meetings where that does not happen are scarce. And I take the assertion as somewhat hyperbolic.


This is an archaic use of but. In this context, but is “introducing an inevitable accompanying circumstance or result”. (NED V1 A–B) That is, you can replace “but” with “without the inevitable result that” without changing the meaning:

Scarcely can two persons meet, without the inevitable result that one is offended or diverted by the ostentation of the other.

In modern constructions, the word without is used instead, and the dependent sentence is recast using be and a gerund:

Scarcely can two persons meet without one being offended or diverted by the ostentation of the other.


Yes. Because everyone has an inflated aspect of personality, it is almost inevitable that any two meeting will cause one to be put off by the airs of the other.

  • 1
    Hi and welcome. While this interprets the line correctly, the OP is wondering at the meaning of the word but, which your answer doesn't address (I am not the down voter, just explaining the probable reason this might be flagged as "not an answer".) The site tour and the help center provides some valuable guidance on this site. Again, welcome. May 2, 2016 at 23:35
  • Sorry. I prioritized the titular question.
    – KWinker
    May 7, 2016 at 6:36
  • I'd change my vote if I could, just for correct use of "titular".
    – MetaEd
    Jun 22, 2016 at 14:48

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