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People often use sans, the French word for ‘without’ in English.

What I don’t get, is when should that switch be made. When should I say sans when I really want to say without. Are there any general rules regarding usage, or is it kind of a person-to-person basis/feeling of flowerness.

  • Oh! This is not a duplicate. – Dr. Shmuel Jan 9 at 2:47
  • Use sans for big flashing billboards; use serif for everything else. :) – tchrist Jan 9 at 2:56
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    Use it when you need a one-syllable word for "without" so that your line scans properly. Otherwise, stick with "without". – Hellion Jan 9 at 4:03
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The Oxford English Dictionary lists the word as:

Now arch. (chiefly with reminiscence of Shakespeare), jocular, and Heraldry.
Before the time of Shakespeare used almost exclusively with nouns adopted from Old French, in collocations already formed in that language, as sans delay, sans doubt, sans fable, sans pity, sans return. Even in some of our earliest examples, however, a native English synonym has been substituted for the Romanic n. in the phrase, as in sans biding = sans delay.

(You can see plenty of examples of it being paired with French expressions in the Middle English Dictionary. However, it's not really used like this anymore.)

Shakespeare used it in some memorable lines:

Bero.
My loue to thee is sound, sance cracke or flaw.
Rosa.
Sans, sans, I pray you.
Loues labors lost

It's also used repetitively at the end of the especially famous "all the world's a stage" quote:

Last Scene of all,
That ends this strange euentfull historie,
Is second childishnesse, and meere obliuion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans euery thing.

  • I don't know how the OED can mark as "archaic" a word for which it added seven new examples in the 1989 version as compared to the 1909 edition (including four from the 70s). Clearly the word is used a lot (something the OP recognizes). And how does the 1989 version's most recent example (1979: A. Hailey Overload iii. i. 196 "The result was a high-quality recording, sans commercials, which the adults and other families watched later at their leisure.") qualify as "jocular"? – AmE speaker Jan 9 at 4:21
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Once again, let poetry lead you to an answer.

A very well-known usage of sans appears in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII: All the world’s a stage.

The lines describe the stages of a man’s life, and famously ends with the following:

Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

When you use sans in modern English, you are alluding to this work, either directly, or via some other writer that alluded to it earlier and perhaps more consciously.

Note the mood that it evokes: the lack of teeth etc. is the consequence of a fully-lived life. There can be self-awareness of the lacking, and a kind of wry humor. We are powerless to determine our lives, but we can find laughter in our responses, absurd though they may be.

So you can use sans in humorous writing aimed at an intelligent and well-read audience.

However, wry humor is something of an art, as these examples show.

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    You can't allude to a work you know nothing about, no matter how many other people are alluding to it. Also, where is the evidence that sans can only be used in a humorous way? – AmE speaker Jan 9 at 9:32

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