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I am trying to decide whether the sentences

[X] argues [Y]’s death to be without sin

and

[X] argues [Y]’s death to be sinless

actually carry the same meaning. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘sinless’ as:

sinless

ADJECTIVE
Free from sin.

‘the sinless life of Christ’

The same dictionary defines the prepositional use of ‘without’ as:

without

PREPOSITION

  1. In the absence of.
    1. Not having the use or benefit of.
    2. [often with verbal noun] In circumstances in which the action mentioned does not happen.
  2. archaic, literary Outside.

To me, there seems to be slightly different nuances to them. Checking the suffix itself, it is defined as:

-less

SUFFIX

  1. (forming adjectives and adverbs from nouns) not having; free from.
  2. (forming adjectives and adverbs from verbs) not affected by or not carrying out the action of the verb.

I find it hard to pinpoint what exactly the difference between these two is. Are they really the same; or is the nuance which I intuitively feel there to be, substantiated?

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    Googling, I find that "X's death was without sin" and "X's death was sinless" are generally only applied to Jesus Christ. I don't know what it would mean when applied to an ordinary person. Aug 11 at 12:56
  • I'm more interested in money and shoes than sin. :)
    – Lambie
    Aug 11 at 14:51
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    It seems to me that He is sinless means more like He hasn't sinned. Whereas He is without sin means more like He has no sins associated with him. The difference between sin the verb and sin the noun... Aug 12 at 2:24
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When someone creates an adjective from a noun by adding the suffix "-less" they are not simply creating an alternative to "without X": they are implying the existence of a class, attribute, or quality that has its own significance.

For instance, if we talk about ‘Jones, a peasant who does not possess land’, we are discussing Jones' own situation:

Jones does not own land! He probably needs to pay rent or work for other people.

In contrast, if we talk about ‘Jones, a landless peasant’, we are placing him in a particular category:

Jones is a landless peasant! He has the characteristics and probably the sympathies of the class to which he belongs.

Another way in which the adjectival form can be used is to imply that the quality is deeper, longer-lasting, or more substantial. For instance, ‘[X] is clueless’ would be an offensive remark about the intelligence of [X], while ‘[X] doesn't have a clue’ probably just means that [X] is presently unaware of something.

We can see both of these factors in the distinction between ‘without guilt’ and ‘guiltless’. Saying that someone is ‘without guilt’ is a bit equivocal - it can describe someone who should not be blamed, and it can also describe someone who may be blameworthy but simply does not feel guilty. But if we describe someone as ‘guiltless’ we are asserting something more substantial: it isn't just that blaming them would be incorrect; it would be wrong. That is, they should not be blamed; they cannot be blamed; no guilt attaches to them.

In the example you use, arguing that ‘[Y]’s death was sinless’ may imply some association or continuity between [Y]’s death and other things that are sinless. [X] could make the same connections when claiming that ‘[Y]’s death was without sin’, but they would need to be made explicitly. However, even if [X] would not admit the existence of other sinless deaths, the adjectival form ‘sinless’ implies that [Y]’s death wasn't accidentally or coincidentally without sin: its sinlessness was significant and distinctive.

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  • Interestingly, it seems many -less-adjectives can also be used as nouns. John is a landless is a sentence that works, and its translations to other Germanic languages seems to work well as well.
    – Canned Man
    Aug 12 at 14:47
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In the sense 1. that you provide, -less and without are indeed synonyms, and your example of sinless is one instance of that: sinless means without sin/ having no sin.

We find in the Bible an instance when "without sin" refers to any human being but with a negative meaning:

John 8:7 He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

It is interesting to note that sinless is not once used in the Bible, not even by modern translations like the NRS or RSV, possibly because "without sin" is considered more solemn. However, both expressions are commonly used and differ little in frequency.

I have found a few instances where the two are used together to explain each other, among which this one:

Even if through the omnipotent power of Divine grace the soul can truthfully avow that, keeping itself and kept by God, it is living an unsinning life, it can never say that it is sinless, or without sin: that it has no sin.

(The London Quarterly Review, William Lonsdale Watkinson, ‎William Theophilus Davison, Volume 52, page 189)


As your second meaning states, the suffix -less can also mean:

Unable to act or be acted on in a specified way: dauntless. (AHD)

or

not doing; not affected by : tireless (Oxfordlearnersdictionaries)

For example, if you describe a person as selfless, it does not mean that the person does not have a self, but that it is not driven by self-love.

Even within the synonymy I pointed out in sense 1., the meaning of -less depends on the word it is added to, and also on established use. If you say the homeless, everybody will understand that you are referring to the status of people who typically live on the streets. But if you say people without a home, this is a less established phrase and may be interpreted as referring to people who were temporarily left without a home because of some natural catastrophe or mishap in their life.

Learn-english-today points out to another meaning -less can have:

The suffix -less added to an adjective means without or insufficient, for example:

  • fearless (without fear) or careless (insufficient attention).

CaGEL calls -less an affixal negator (p. 788), and records yet another meaning:

countless and fathomless have modal passive paraphrases:

  • that can't be counted/fathomed. (p. 1711)
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    § In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree: / Where Alph, the sacred river, ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea. § They cross’d the moat, and Christabel / Took the key that fitted well; / A little door she open’d straight, / All in the middle of the gate; / The gate that was iron’d within and without, / Where an army in battle array had march’d out.
    – tchrist
    Aug 12 at 2:26
  • @tchrist Heb. 13:12-13 Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. 1 Thess. 5:23 And I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. In my work I often use this archaic meaning of "without"...
    – fev
    Aug 12 at 9:20
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    Certainly there are a lot of "X-less" words that you actually can't convert to "without X" or any similar phrase, and that's usually with the second usage -- unless it's for a Wodehouse-style gag. "Entirely without gorm, is Gussie..." "I am perfectly free of daunt, old chum!" etc Aug 12 at 13:25
  • Thank you very much for this answer. Your examples are varied, and your research excellent. For some reason, the conclusion in Joe Slater’s answer made it easier for me to properly get an understanding, a feel for what the difference is, and that was the reason I chose his answer as the one that ‘solved [my] problem’ and ‘was the most helpful in finding [my] solution’. Your answer is by all means an excellent answer, though, in every respect.
    – Canned Man
    Aug 13 at 14:27
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TL;DR

Yes, these are distinct words and have distinct meanings but the difference is very, very slight. 'X-less' and 'without X' and 'having no X' are all synonymous. 'without sin' though has biblical connotations.


Details

  • Dictionaries don't give exact mathematical definitions. They give hints to what you already know. Sure, we all refer to a dictionary for an authority to settle some bar bet or to correct our inner malapropisms when writing, but you're not going to translate your thoughts into words by looking up sequentially in a dictionary.

    Which is to say that I wouldn't take the huge differences in the dictionary entries here too seriously. Also don't take seriously if the entries look identical or refer to each other. The difficulty is in getting an idea of the extent of the difference.

  • There are no exact synonyms. Two words/phrases that seem interchangeable in all circumstances will have different connections and appearances with other words/phrases. 'Bucket' and 'pail' are synonyms util you realize that people use them in different circumstances.

  • 'without a X' and 'X-less' though logically should be identical have slight variations in meaning because of the syntax or semantic restriction, or because of their frequency.

    • For both, X must be a noun, but not any noun and not the same set of nouns for both. Like comparatives -er and -est, it is infelicitous (or outright wrong) to use -less with many longer words ('without independence' but not '*independenceless').
    • Semantically, for example 'careless' means without care, but 'without care' is a little bit more literal, like without any hospital care, but 'careless' means slipshod or messy. I think this is the largest difference in nuance that you'll find in general.
    • By pure frequency of association, the term 'without sin' is associated with the often repeated Biblical admonition:

    "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." KJV John 8:7

    This quote elicits up the idea that most people have sinned. So using 'without sin' may conjure up similar associations. Note that of all the translations of this one very, very famous quote that 6 use 'sinless' and that 41 use 'without sin' (and the most well known versions KJV and NIV use 'without sin'.

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The converse of "without" is "within"

"Without X" contains the nuance of "outside the scope or area of influence of, or encompassed by, X".

("There is a green hill far away without a city wall" = outside.)

He is without sin = He is beyond the point at which sin may affect him.

"X-less" contains the nuance of "not possessing/experiencing X despite X being common and present.

("He was penniless" - although money (pennies) are in circulation.)

He is sinless = He, in an environment where sin is endemic, remains untainted by the influence of sin.

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    The meaning "outside" of "without" is archaic. In "without sin" and "without the city", "without" is used with different meanings.
    – fev
    Aug 12 at 11:24
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    @fev: This is a question of semantics - as per the OP's title. Whether it is archaic is besides the point. There is only one meaning of "without" but the context changes the emphasis within that meaning. You seems to be seeing "without" as meaning "lacking", whereas the meaning of "without X" gives the reason for the lack of X - it is exterior to X. This can be seen in the phrase "without the benefit of clergy" where "without" means both "outside" and "lacking".
    – Greybeard
    Aug 12 at 11:38
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    I can take this argument to be true, though, as one could make the connection X is without Y = X is lacking YY is outside of X’s means or capabilities. This would connect without and within semantically.
    – Canned Man
    Aug 12 at 14:44
  • Scottish English retains the original meaning of "without" in the transposed form "outwith", meaning beyond, outside, or excluded from. I'm actually not clear how the combination with+out, which originally meant something like "against the exterior side", eventually received the primary meaning of "lacking a quality or other object". I suppose it may have originated with things that people regarded as denoting a particular state or category, and to lack those things means that you are excluded from the category. But this is speculation.
    – Joe Slater
    Aug 13 at 1:54

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