The Tomb of the Unknown Solider has the engraving "KNOWN BUT TO GOD", as presumably no man knows his name, but shouldn't it read "unknown, but to God", as the default for everyone is "unknown", with the exception "but to God"?

Is the construction older? How should it be parsed?

  • 3
    Gravestones of unknowns in Commonwealth cemeteries are inscribed "Known unto God". Jan 18, 2011 at 22:14

2 Answers 2


In the phrase

Known but to God

but functions as an adverb, and, as such, it means only. Thus, the inscription could very well read:

Known only to God

  • 1
    So the comma I figured was implicit doesn't belong there at all, as it changes the meaning?
    – Nick T
    Jan 19, 2011 at 13:11
  • 2
    @Nick T: Right, the comma doesn't belong there. With the comma, but becomes a preposition, which means except!
    – Jimi Oke
    Jan 19, 2011 at 15:05

The tomb of the unkown soldier, or any of the graves at Arlington that are inscribed with the same quote for that matter, have a comma so the point made regarding that is moot. Just because someone posts something with it that way doesn't mean it's accurate.

I don't think the language used at the time makes any difference. If you are focused on that maybe take a step back for a few seconds and think about how strange it sounds to be concerned with the wording considering the gravity of why it was used.

  • 1
    Please provide a reference that these have a comma. I don't see one in the 4th picture here. Aug 13, 2017 at 10:47

Your Answer

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

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