Happy National Grammar Day, loyal blog readers!
Today I explore a comment left about the proper usage of unbeknownst by John Carlson.
Can one use “unbeknownst” without the “to” that customarily follows, as in: For ten years, the waste flowed, untreated and unbeknownst, directly to the river?
An Uncommon Question
I’m already loving John because he has capitalized the “for” above: since he’s written a full sentence following the colon, with a question mark, this is correct. The full interrogative sentence after the colon is, in fact, the only occasion on which I too capitalize the first word that follows the colon. So a big wordy highfive from me, John.
I was completely flummoxed by John’s excellent actual question, however. We now know that one can use both unbeknown and unbeknownst without incurring the wrath of the grammar brigade, but what about that all-important preposition, to, that usually comes after?
It’s certainly an uncommon and unexpected usage. But is it legitimate?
A Matter of Style
My first instinct would be to say no–not because of any grammatical error, but because it would be redundant. Why argue that the waste flowed unbeknownst, when unknown would get the job done so much less syllabically?
But what if John is an aspiring novelist, who wants to use this uncommon formation to make a stylistic statement? “Untreated and unbeknownst” has a certain anapestic ring to it. Could he make this choice and stay on safe grammatical footing?
While John’s question is so uncommon that there is little on the subject to be found (Fowler’s has no opinion, the concise online Oxford is terse), the scarce information out there shows that “to” is a necessary evil–an essential part of the unbeknownst construction. Old faithful M-W defines the word as
happening or existing without the knowledge of someone specified
and while it merely suggests a usual use of “to”, how else would you point to that someone specified? The questionable source of www.diclib.com (currently running a dubious banner ad for the U.S. green card lottery–they certainly know their audience) is the most sure of itself:
adj. (formal) (cannot stand alone) unbeknownst to
Diclib’s cited source here is the unfamiliar “Bbi Combinatory Dictionary of English,” so be warned.
All in all, I would steer clear of unbeknownst without the preposition, John. Unless you’re writing poetry or embarking on a one-man language-change campaign, a lonely unbeknownst is, most likely, a misbegotten one.
Or is that misbegot?