I would like to pose the following question:

does the expression "without one X"

  1. mean unambiguously "without any X",
  2. mean unambiguously "without a(n) X" or
  3. can have both meanings and thus is an odd and ambiguous expression which should best be avoided?

To clarify my query, I will provide a practical example: if a legal act provides for a number of conditions, and then goes on saying that, under special circumstances, something can be done "without one condition being respected", how would you understand this last sentence? Meaning 1) "even if NONE of the above conditions is respected" or 2) "even if ONE of the above conditions is not respected"? Or is it 3) grammatically unclear?

Thank you very much in advance for your help!

  • This is English! Hardly anything is unambiguous, absent a reasonable amount of context. Though it's a bit archaic, someone could write "The barbarians stood without the gates" and mean they were outside of the gates.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 21 '18 at 2:23

As Edwin wrote, the expression "without one" is technically ambiguous, and will be understood within the surrounding context.

With regard to your practical example, which would be a very poor example of lawyer-speak if it were just so (because of the inherent ambiguity of "without one"), we would still assume that it means "exempting/excusing one" (as in, if you meet all the conditions except for one). We would assume such because

a) people don't like to allow special circumstances, so they're going to make people who want them jump through as many hoops as possible

b) normally, to qualify for something, you must meet all the criteria/requirements. That's the default: meeting all requirements. So if an exception is being made, it's highly unlikely that they're going to throw out all the initial requirements. That would be too unbelievable.

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