In the following sentence of today’s Time magazine’s article titled "Obama's Afghanistan problem: Neither Karzai nor the Taliban like the 'Reconciliation' Script," the word absent appears to be used as a preposition having the sense of ‘without.’

“Karzai's independent power base is minimal, as is his ability to influence the outcome of his country's civil war absent direct U.S. involvement. And that gives neither Karzai nor the Taliban much incentive to cut a deal with the other.”

As I don’t think I’ve seen case ‘absent’ being used in this way, I consulted OALD. It defines ‘absent’ only as a noun and verb. The Cambridge online dictionary also defines it as an adjective meaning ‘not in the place where you are expected to be, especially at school or work.’

Is it natural to use ‘absent’ as a preposition as used above? For example, would you casually say ‘It won’t go well absent your help’ in your daily conversation? Is it the same with the usage pattern of ‘short of’?

  • see #5 at dictionary.reference.com/browse/absent
    – JeffSahol
    May 21, 2012 at 20:25
  • Are you speaking American English or British English? Merriam-Webster has an entry for the preposition, and says it's been used this way since 1944. Although Google Ngrams shows it's now catching on in British English, it doesn't seem to have made U.K. dictionaries yet. May 21, 2012 at 20:51
  • 2
    @PeterShor: Note that in almost all of the examples actually cited for 2008 in that Ngram, "absent" is an ordinary adjective (generally followed by punctuation before "the"); and several of the publications are actually American. "Absent" meaning "without" is unknown in British English.
    – Andrew Leach
    May 21, 2012 at 21:04
  • @Andrew: that's too strong. In the courts, I hear phrases like "absent a signed document, intention cannot be assumed" not daily, but perhaps once a week. Specialised perhaps, but still British English, and not a new phenomenon. May 21, 2012 at 22:15
  • @Peter Shor. As this question regards the text of Time magazine's article, I’ll be discussing American Eng. But as a non-native English speaker, I’m not so particular with the distinction of American and British English here. Though the edition is a bit old, Oxford American Dictionary (1980) at hand defines ‘absent’ as adj. meaning 1. not present, 2. nonexistent. vb. to stay away. Webster’s Basic Dictionary of American English (1998) at hand defines it only as adj. meaning 1. not present. 2. lacking and missing. 3. Not showing interest / attention, both no mentions on the usage as preposition. May 21, 2012 at 22:56

2 Answers 2


The OED has the entry for absent as a preposition is marked as orig. and chiefly U.S. law, with the definition In the absence of, without, and provides citations back to the late 1800's, e.g.

1888 Southwestern Reporter 8 898 If the deed had been made by a stranger to the wife, then a separate estate in her would not have been created, absent the necessary words.

My exposure to the usage is primarily from news stories, so it makes sense that you would encounter it in Time magazine. It is a natural usage in that context, and could be replaced by short of (though that may make the tone a little less formal).

  • Yes, although its most recent citation is from the Daily Telegraph in 2006, which has nothing to do with U.S. law. :)
    – tchrist
    May 22, 2012 at 3:19

I will just explain this construction as it appears to me. It is in fact an adjective even when used with a noun as a preposition. The two form an absolute construction, such as those found in Latin. It is therefore not entirely synonymous with the preposition "without", although this usage of it is clearly becoming common. To understand the construction, one simply needs to rearrange the words so that they appear to relate to one another in a more familiar way. For example, if we rearrange the sentence "Spain will win Euro 2012 absent a major upset" to read "Spain will win Euro 2012, a major upset absent", we can see that the word "absent is still an adjective in this usage. However, this usage of it has led to incorrect ones, such as used countless times in the Spartacus TV series. Before killing Silonius, Spartacus compliments him, saying "You are not absent skill". This is the prepositional usage which is in recent American dictionaries and was born from misunderstanding. I would suggest that when writing formally, it is important to remember that it is an adjective and to use it accordingly, such as in the first example. I would like to stress that I am fully aware of the acceptance of "absent=without" but that I thought I could shed some light on how it became so prevalent.

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