I'm reading Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe. He keeps using a sentence construction that I have never seen before:

"...my poor pineal gland has all but forgotten how to do its job without that I drown it in melatonin precursors."

"No one down there is going to notice me all the way up here, not without that I give them a sign."

As this occurs several times throughout the novel, it's clearly intentional, not a one-off error. However, I can't recall ever having read "without that" + [clause] before. To me, the sentences feel like they should read "...without my/me drowning it... and "...without my/me giving them a sign."

I was curious about this, and it turned out to be difficult to Google fruitfully, so I thought I'd see if anyone here knows: Where does this construction come from, and why is he using it? Is this a dialectal thing, and if so, what varieties of English can use it? In short: What's going on here?

  • 3
    I've never read him, but I rather suspect Doctorow is simply using quirky/archaic style here for the sake of "exotic" effect. I base that solely on the fact that the term "melatonin precursors" wouldn't even have existed when "without that" was an unexceptional alternative to "unless". Commented Jul 3, 2012 at 2:01
  • @FumbleFingers Cory Doctorow is one of those sci-fi writers who tends to get very technical. And like a lot of sci-fi/fantasy writers he may adapt a peculiar turn of phrase food a particular character. (Which is what I suspect happened here.) Another example of this is The Knife of Never Letting Go. The main character narrates and he is uneducated, which is evident in the way he tries to pronounce long words.
    – shachna
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 19:27
  • @shachna: It sounds like you're familiar with his writing. I already had suspicions in that direction, and am starting to regret "exotic" effect above, and just a Cory Doctorow idiosyncracy in my actual answer. If ELU were "Lit. Crit." I should probably have been saying "Brilliant writing style! We can all learn from this!". But many ELU visitors are effectively first-year ESL students, and it would be better for them to learn *today's usage before worrying about how skilled writers can exploit such subtle nuances. Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 21:40
  • ...can't resist adding - if you like the way Doctorow is sensitive to how his language "register" relates to the narrative itself, and you don't already know Russel's Hoban's Riddley Walker, put that down in your "must read" list! I just hope we don't get a slew of questions here asking about Hoban's choice of phrasing/spelling! Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 21:45

3 Answers 3


It's just archaic English grammar, like using thou or sayest.
Like English spelling, it's correct (for an earlier version of the language).

That is a complementizer that marks a Tensed Subordinate Clause in English. It used to be able to appear in any kind of tensed subordinate clause -- noun clauses, adjective clauses, or adverb clauses -- as long as they have a subject, and a verb in the present or past tense.

This is still true for noun clauses (object and subject complement clauses), and for adjective clauses (restrictive relative clauses and NP complements), but not for adverbial clauses like unless I go with you.

but not in adverb clauses, at least not in Modern English.

  • *When that I get back from vacation, we'll paint the garage.

But in Middle English it was OK.

(That is normally optional, though under certain conditions it is required. In the above, optional that is parenthesized. Probably it was optional for Chaucer, who was a poet and needed a handy store of optional syllables. Just like Cory Doctorow, at least in that respect.)

The that in Chaucer's Prologue is not a demonstrative that -- Which April? That April, or the other one? -- rather, it's filling the slot where one used to mark a tensed time adverb clause, right after the wh-word that indicates time.

A more modern (though regional) example is provided by Andy Griffith's comedy monologue, What It Was, Was Football, delivered in the comedian's native North Carolina dialect, which includes a number of archaizing features, including using that in tensed adverbial clauses.

About 12 seconds into the recording in the link above, Griffith says

  • Different ones of us thought that we ought to get us a mouthf'l to eat
    before that we set up the tent

Since unless also introduces tensed adverbial clauses (a counterfactual conditional clause in this case), the rule would apply to it, too. In this dialect. But outside Modern English dialectal speech, it's pretty rare, so doing it in print is an affectation. Which is pretty typical of Cory Doctorow.

  • 1
    I must admit I hadn't fully taken on board exactly what OP was asking here. I thought it was all about the use of "without" in a context where we'd normally use "unless" today. But in fact his specific issue seems to be with the word "that", so I think I'll amend my answer to reflect that you've covered that one nicely. Excellent example from Chaucer! Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 21:56
  • @FumbleFingers The Andy Griffith recording is a scream, too, and extremely authentic -- he was a native speaker and made a good thing out of it. Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 20:16

At first I thought maybe this might be a Canadian regionalism, but apparently not. It's an archaism used by Cory Doctorow to convey exotic, other-wordly overtones. Here are instances from several centuries ago, back when it was current...

...ye shall never depart from this city without that I go with you. (note the "ye" - it really is old!)

...in 1463...no merchant...should sell wool...without that he accept "ready payment".

Today, the standard phrasing is "...unless I go with you". As regards the specifics of including the word "that" after "without", @John Lawler has provided the canonical answer.

  • It is not a Canadian regionalism.
    – JAM
    Commented Jul 3, 2012 at 19:37
  • @JAM: In 1985, American poet and novelist George Garrett (1929-2008) published a collection of short stories called An Evening Performance. In it, farmer Ed Cartwright complains "...they can come tramping across my land just any damn time they feel like it, without I give an invitation first." Commented Jul 3, 2012 at 20:27
  • ...which is just by way of saying the form does occur occasionally even in recent decades (though I think including the word "that" is probably far less likely now than a few centuries ago). Anyway, I never really thought Canadians would turn out to be that far behind the times! OP's instance seems to be just Doctorow playing with the juxtaposition between this very old phrasing and the up-to-the-minute term "melatonin precursors". To make his characters "quirkily interesting", I imagine. Commented Jul 3, 2012 at 20:33

The following article sheds a little more light on this question:

Recategorization of Prepositions as Complementizers: The Case of Temporal Prepositions in English

According to the author, without that is found "well into the 19th century (and dialectally into the 20th)". Certain Southeastern dialects of American English still permit constructions such as 'They never came to church without that they brought their bibles'.

As an aside it may be worth pointing out that without that, rather than the gerund, is the standard construction in languages such as German (ohne dass) and Italian (senza che).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.