Editor at Large

National Grammar Day: Exploring Unbeknownst

Happy National Grammar Day, loyal blog readers!

Before you read today’s entry, why not have a look at some previous posts on grammar, including our illustrious president’s most talked-about mistake?

Today I explore a comment left about the proper usage of unbeknownst by John Carlson.

John asks:

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?

Apparently not.

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 (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?

8 replies on “National Grammar Day: Exploring Unbeknownst”

Ms. Glimmerglasssays:

Pretty cute, Ms. Butterfield. And, unbeknownst TO ME, the grammar police have been away on holiday, what with EVERYONE now saying “people that” instead of “people who.” Now THAT’S misbegot!

Ms. Glimmerglasssays:

and, by the way….
nice to see you back! I was getting tired of looking at that Swan thing.

Thanks very much! I thought initially that this was spam but I checked your site and it looks not only legit, but very interesting! I’ve had so much work lately that I am behind on posting, but knowing I’m on a few feeds is certainly a good incentive.

Ahem!!!!! Some of us (Well, I at least) were beginning to wonder if you had fallen off the face of the Earth. Maybe took a long trip and got lost in the swamp or something?

French Ladysays:

How about this sentence? What would you put instead of “unbeknownst”? In this case, Ryan is the one who does not know he is her soul mate — yet.

She begs Ryan, her unbeknownst soul mate, to fly to London, but before he arrives, she is kidnapped.

Thank you,

French Lady

The OED calls unbeknownst an adjective, but one of its illustrative quotations, from Agatha Christie in 1952, has this:
“One of those smart lads may have got out of the College buildings unbeknownst.” It is not the lads or the college buildings which are unbeknownst, but the action of getting out.

No “to” was needed, because the action was unbeknownst to everyone.

Most of the other quotations listed have the word followed by “to”, e.g. from 1982 this:

“A whole other wife and children all unbeknownst to Ackerley until after his father’s death.”

Here the sense is adjectival, not because of the “to” because unbeknownst here doesn’t refer to any stated action, but the (existence of) the wife and children – in any case nouns.

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