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I keep hearing people use the word sans in place of without which causes me to cringe. Can sans really be used as a drop-in replacement?

Examples:

"I prefer cheeseburgers sans pickles."

"I went to the store sans my brother."

"I typed my essay sans using a sans serif font."

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  • How typical of Americans (and also other Anglo-Saxons) to try to rub out the roots of their language. Driven by blind collonial pride sans logic. The funniest thing is that native english speakers have such a hard time pronouncing any non-english name or word. Sans reason.
    – Chris
    Commented Aug 15, 2012 at 5:07
  • @Chris: People usually do not consciously engage in language extermination. It generally stems from a natural process of language evolution. The usage of sans has simply died out (although I've seen it used by non-native English speakers).
    – Jesse Good
    Commented Apr 25, 2013 at 21:00

6 Answers 6

14

Well, Merriam-Webster considers sans a word (meaning without). Sans-serif is definitely correct; that is simply what sans-serif fonts are called. Shakespeare used it like this:

My love for thee is sound, sans crack or flaw.

I think it's safe to assume that if Merriam-Webster and Shakespeare use it, it's probably a safe word to use; the words that weren't words when Shakespeare used them became words anyways.

As for how much one should use the word, I would suggest limiting its use, despite the fact that it may be legitimate; using it could make you sound silly (awkward wording sounds silly, IMO) or pretentious.

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  • I realize sans is a word, but to what extent can it be used?
    – Pubby
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 4:48
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    @Pubby I think it can be used to the extent mentioned in your question, but one should probably limit his/her usage of the word; without is more recognizable, and sounds better overall.
    – user11550
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 4:51
  • 10
    M-W and Shakespeare notwithstanding, I think it's normally only used somewhat facetiously, often with a degree of exaggerated enunciation to make sure the "mock-classy foreign word" is recognised. Also, it's mainly restricted to contexts where by default whatever is missing/unwanted would normally be present. Particularly food items, since it's associated with French haute cuisine. Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 5:03
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    @FumbleFingers Your comment is the most pertinent answer, as this is a question of usage, rather than etymology, meaning, or whatever else.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 10:30
  • @Mahnax, Is Shakespeare that good?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 7:43
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The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as archaic.

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  • Doesn't archaic mean "no longer in use"? Or, deprecated? As we can see, the word is still indeed used.
    – Kris
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 9:48
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    @Kris archaic: "1. Very old or old-fashioned. 2. No longer in everyday use but sometimes used to impart an old-fashioned flavor."
    – Hugo
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 9:54
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    @Kris: When a word is no longer in use the OED describes it as ‘obsolete’. In the case of ‘sans’, the full description is ‘Now archaic (chiefly with reminiscence of Shakespeare), jocular, and Heraldry.’ Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 10:08
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    The online calls it "literary or humorous"
    – Unreason
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 11:38
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As others said, sans does mean without. However, in my experience it is used only to modify a noun, not a verb phrase. So your "sans using" example feels very wrong to me, but "sans serif", "sans pickles", etc are fine. (Another answer commented on the oddness of "sans my brother", though "sans Dave" feels more natural.)

So sans is best used with an unmodified noun, might be ok with a modified noun ("my brother") but will sound "off", and is not advised with verbs.

4

I limit myself to using it as a de facto prefix and in no other way. That is, to mean the antithesis of what immediately follows as otherwise generally understood. Sans serif as opposed to the more common Roman font; sans soda because going with soda is more common...

@jwpat7: Which is probably why "sans my brother" sounds clumsy.

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  • Just a correction on the "Roman font" -- there's no such thing, except as a typeface variant: "Roman" means "upright" (as opposed to italic or oblique variants of a typeface). A "serif" typeface has the little serifs at the end of strokes, particularly to establish a text baseline and make reading easier (think Times-Roman). "Sans-serif" typefaces lack these decorations (think Arial).
    – Phil Perry
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 17:58
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Your three examples of use are all correct, although the "my brother" one is clumsy and I'd only expect to hear that example with a name; e.g. "I went to the store sans Billy."

Another Shakespeare example: "Last scene of all /.../ Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

A Horace Walpole example, regarding Frederick the Great:

Have you seen the works of the philosopher of Sans Souci, or rather, of the man who is no philosopher, and who has more Souci than any man now in Europe? How contemptible they are!

[As in ohne-sorgen-polka notes, Sans Souci can translate as Without worry, or more hiply as no sweat, "Ohne Sorge" being the German for Sans Souci.]

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"sans" might come from French: "sans" is the French word that exactly means "without".

For instance:

  • "J'y suis allé sans mon frère" is translated into "I went there without my brother"
  • "Soda sans glace" is "Soda, no ice"
  • "sans importance" is "not important"
  • "sans plomb" is "unleaded"

For these reasons, I suspect "sans" would be a little more higher language, less common, and sounding old-fashioned compared to "without"/"-less/"no"/"free"

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  • 'Sans' entered the language long before the nineteenth century and long, even, before Shakespeare. Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 9:25
  • @BarrieEngland You are right, I removed this incorrect dating. Most likely, they have the same etymology, though. "sans" comes from "sinis", which is barbarian latin for "sine"
    – rds
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 9:34
  • I think this is the best answer here so far. The "original" origin is a bit irrelevant, since it only (just) survives in English because it's still current in French. Which in some ways makes it "modern pseudo-cosmopolitan" at the same time as being archaic. Feel free to copy/reword anything from my comment to @Mahnax's answer, if you want this to be ELU's enduring showcase definition for modern usage. Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 13:42
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    While sans does translate to without, its use in English should be very limited (to established uses such as sans-serif). Most of the examples given in this discussion sound very pretentious or faux-cosmopolitan -- people straining to sound sophisticated.
    – Phil Perry
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 17:53

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