Unbeknown or Unbeknownst?
Filed under: Editor at Large — Casey

By the third time I noticed unbeknown in somebody’s English, I knew it was time to take action.

First stop: that U.S. English stalwart, Merriam-Webster. I smugly tapped in “unbeknown”, expecting to see M-W’s usual nonjudgmental response:

The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary.

A Mistaken Mistake?

Color me surprised — or don’t, since that might be mixing metaphors: Merriam-Webster lists “unbeknown” as a variant of “unbeknownst.”

That’s right: unbeknownst to me, “unbeknown” has been an acceptable usage all along.

But let’s not just take M-W’s word for it. Not only is it important to use multiple sources, I also work into American and British English – which means that now I had to make sure that “unbeknownst,” what I’d been using all along, was actually okay to employ on either side of the Atlantic.

Covering the Bases

Luckily for me, Lynne Murphy of separated by a common language got there first. In a strange coincidence, her post was made on September 22, 2007 – almost exactly a year ago today. She writes:

John Algeo discusses this phrase in his book British or American English? Searching the Cambridge International Corpus, he found 3.0 instances of unbeknown but only 0.9 instances of unbeknownst per ten million words in BrE texts. On the other hand, he found 4.1 per ten million of unbeknownst and only 1.0/10,000,000 of unbeknown in AmE texts.

In layman’s terms, that means my hunch was right: “unbeknownst” is probably a red flag in British English! I checked the British National Corpus (remember them?) just to be sure, and out of 100 million words, there are 44 instances of “unbeknown” versus just 11 for “unbeknownst.” That’s just about exactly the inverse of what Algeo found in his American English source texts.

Of course, that still makes either usage fairly uncommon – so it’s pretty incredible that a few native U.S. English speakers have noticed the difference at all!

So the next time you use “unbeknownst” (I’m sure you hit it at least once a year), remember to decode it for your British friends, lest they think you’ve made a mistake!

16 Comments »

  • Jonah said:  
    (On 7 December 2008 at 8:36 PM)

    Heh.
    Interesting… or maybe not.
    Either way, it helped me choose which to use for an essay. =]

  • Casey said:  
    (On 8 December 2008 at 6:35 AM)

    Thanks, Jonah! That’s what I’m here for…language is a very interesting topic to me and many others, and one of my goals with this blog is to turn my passion for this type of discussion into something that’s helpful to Googlers like yourself.

  • John Carlson said:  
    (On 19 February 2009 at 11:27 AM)

    Can one use “unbeknownst” without the “to” that customarily follows, as in: For ten years, the waste flowed, untreated and unbeknonwst, directly to the river?

  • andy said:  
    (On 30 September 2009 at 8:57 PM)

    Pretty sure that both words are correct, even in American English. The difference is that “unbeknown” is an adjective and “unbeknownst” is an adverb, usually followed by “to.”

    Unbeknownst to me, the spider had already laid its eggs in my scalp.

    The spider, of a species unbeknown, was an unwelcome guest.

  • Newtopian said:  
    (On 1 April 2011 at 11:48 PM)

    I realize it’s been a while here but I would agree with Andy. Empirical evidence in text found on internet can hardly be transposed as factual rules.

    The fact that the number of people choosing to use the adjective form of the word does not make the adverbial form erroneous. Furthermore how many of the text using the adjective form are in error and should in fact have used the adjective ?

  • Sony Roy said:  
    (On 18 September 2011 at 10:19 AM)

    Thank you for your timely comments. As I am preparing the most important motion in an unprecedented case, Your input was timely. I’ll take UNBEKNOWNST

  • Sony Roy said:  
    (On 18 September 2011 at 10:19 AM)

    Thank you for your timely input.

  • big black dog said:  
    (On 5 November 2012 at 12:38 PM)

    Usually I think U.S English sucks, but in this case I prefer ‘unbeknownst’.

  • Kev said:  
    (On 17 January 2013 at 2:55 AM)

    I’m from Ireland and live in Britain. I’ve always heard/used ‘unbeknownst’ and had never heard of ‘unbeknown’. I really would have expected the reverse of what your research found. I would have believed that ‘unbeknownst’ was fairly common here on the east side of the Atlantic and that ‘unbeknown’ - if it even existed - would have been an Anerican variant. I’ve learned something!

  • Gabrielle said:  
    (On 26 February 2013 at 5:50 AM)

    Hi, thanks for this article. I’m an Australian about to publish my first book with Balboa Press in the US. I’ve written ‘unbeknown’ in the text, and my American proofreader has suggested using ‘unbeknownst’, which we don’t use in Australia. I’ve been told that I can use Australian spelling…..do you think it’s ok for me to use ‘unbeknown’?

  • Neil Smith said:  
    (On 25 March 2013 at 1:31 PM)

    Never seen or heard of “unbeknownst” it is completely unknown in Scotland or the rest of the UK. In fact it looks like quite an archaic word more at home in a Shakespearean play than in real life. How bizarre that it is used in America - must’ve been in continual usage since the Pilgrim Fathers arrived there.

  • Stuart said:  
    (On 1 May 2013 at 3:11 AM)

    I’m Scottish, raised in England, educated elsewhere in Europe, and working in the US for many years. I do write and publish in English. I use unbeknownst, and like Kev from Ireland I would have thought that’s the British version. I’ve always used it, and always heard it in Britain. Never heard unbeknownst or unbeknown in the US, but that doesn’t surprise me… As the Americans might say, “I could care less.” When in fact they couldn’t care less, right? But that’s another story. However, unlike Neil from Scotland, who says unbeknownst is, well, unknown in Scotland, my completely Scottish parents used it :-)

  • bossrat said:  
    (On 15 June 2013 at 10:46 AM)

    ‘Unbeknownst’ is another made up U.S. word that has hatched out of the host and is taking over.

    It is a Frankenstein’s monster of a word, with no basis in grammar. Even the U.S. dictionary.com says this:

    unbeknownst
    1848, vulgar formation from unbeknown (1636). No clear reason for the -st, but since 19c. this has become the dominant form.

    You wait, with the current level of blind ignorance, somethink, nothink and everythink etc. will soon gain their places in the dictionary.

  • shellyscorner said:  
    (On 18 November 2013 at 2:47 PM)

    @bossrat
    And who would have EVER thought that AIN’T would make it into the dictionary! 30+(a couple of years) ago when I was still in high school, we actually used to argue about it. I used to argue that it would PERHAPS become acceptable to use “ain’t”, but I DID NOT believe that it would EVER be put in the dictionary! Guess we know who has pie on their face now! (I would have preferred Coconut Cream Pie over Lemon Meringue Pie though!)

  • Dunetraveller said:  
    (On 26 March 2014 at 8:53 PM)

    The -st version may be a “vulgar” formation which simply means people took matters into their own hands and made a new form of a word, it does NOT say, nor does it follow, it is an Americanism. Doesn’t really matter where it started since it obviously made it to the other side of the Atlantic. Take you pick and watch the grammar since one form is only an adverb.

  • Random Acts said:  
    (On 12 July 2014 at 1:47 AM)

    I read this poost completely about the resemblance
    of most recent and earlier technologies, it’s
    remarkable article.

  • RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

    Leave a comment

    Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>