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The young moon lies on her back tonight as is her habit in the tropics, and as, I think, is suitable if not seemly for a virgin. Not a star but might not shoot down and accept the invitation to become her lover.” (No Signposts in the Sea by V. Sackville-West)

My question here lies in how to understand the second sentence:

  • Not a star but might not shoot down and accept the invitation to become her lover.

One thing I don't quite understand is the use of “not” and “but might not”. Does that conform to any grammatical rule? And if it does, please tell me how it works. According to my lecturer the sentence should be paraphrased as “every single star might come down quickly and accept the invitation to become her lover." Do you think it is right?

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2 Answers 2

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Not a star but might not shoot down means there isn’t a star that might not shoot down; they might all shoot down.

Here’s the but you’re looking for. It’s archaic; not a person but could be faulted for not understanding it.

but, prep., adv., conj., and n.2
C. conj.
II. In a complex sentence, introducing a subordinate clause.
10. After negative and questioning constructions.
e. Introducing a clause indicating some restriction on the statement about the subject or object in the main clause.
(b) With the pronominal subject or object of the subordinate clause unexpressed, so that but acts as a negative relative: that..not, who..not (e.g. Not a man but felt this terror, i.e. there was not a man who did not feel this terror, they all felt this terror). Now archaic and rare.
Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

Note the example given: Not a man but felt this terror means there was not a man who did not feel this terror; they all felt this terror.

Here’s your whole sentence:

There isn’t a star that might not shoot down and accept the invitation to become her lover.

You can see that you have a double negative, which makes for a positive meaning:

Every star might shoot down and accept the invitation to become her lover.

Your lecturer’s interpretation is correct.

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  • You make it very clear for me! Thank you!
    – Cold Hand
    Feb 9, 2023 at 5:02
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It's certainly not standard syntax. The grammar makes sense, though, if we assume that the author has omitted some words:

[[There is]] not a star but [[those that]] might not shoot down and accept the invitation to become her lover.

Note that "but" is a preposition meaning "except" here.

This still doesn't really make sense. I think that the second "not" should be omitted:

[[There is]] not a star but [[those that]] might shoot down and accept the invitation to become her lover.

Now the sentence does, indeed, mean what your lecturer suggested.

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  • Thank for your sincere advice! Just minutes ago, I consult the AI of chatGPT, and he paraphrased the sentence as "A celestial body that isn't a star might forgo its descent and instead choose to become the moon's companion”. It seems that he tends to understand the “star” as a kind of “shooting star” that normally “falls down quickly from the sky”. Therefore, this “shooting star” or not a “fixed star”, attracted by the charm of moon, decided not to fall down and "accept the invitation". That is so romantic which fits so well of the atmosphere of the book and really makes some sense.
    – Cold Hand
    Feb 8, 2023 at 3:25
  • Of course, I'm not a native speaker, so if what you think the author omitted here is actually what you say without any other possibilities. I will take it for granted for the question has confused me for some days that I have to log in here to ask you experienced and learned guys. Anyway, thank for your efforts again, I'm really appreciate it and it helps me so much. (●'◡'●)
    – Cold Hand
    Feb 8, 2023 at 3:34
  • The OED says that but is still a conjunction here, not a preposition. So like in It never rains but it pours. You can think of this but as the second half of a correlative conjunction pair whose first element is any negative. The entire entry is quite complex, and you have to sift through to find which ones apply here.
    – tchrist
    Feb 8, 2023 at 3:35
  • OED: C. conj. I. In a simple sentence, introducing a word, phrase, or (rarely) a clause which is excepted from the general statement. With the exception of, apart from, except, save. 1. After a negative, expressed or implied. a. With a noun or pronoun as complement. b. With a prepositional, adverbial, infinitive, or other phrase (rarely expanded to a clause) as complement (e.g. They never do anything but change = ‘They only change; they never do anything else’). Now chiefly with following verb.
    – tchrist
    Feb 8, 2023 at 3:38
  • Emmmm...... Now it dawns on me that what you(tchrist)and MarcInManhattan want to explain here. It really makes sense, I will by far take both of your answers as the right one, thank you guys!
    – Cold Hand
    Feb 8, 2023 at 3:55

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