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Nature has given the opportunity of happiness to all, knew they but how to use it. —Claudian

The last sentence, "knew they but how to use it", made no sense to me, neither grammatically or literally.

My understanding is that "people know the existence of the opportunity of happiness but they don't know how to use it". (Still, pretty weird)

Anyway, what does "knew they but how to use it" mean here? Could you explain the grammar structure of it to me?

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It's a translation from poetry, and we often have inversion from usual grammar in very literary English.

The meaning is what we would now say "... if they only knew how to use it

Some learners find this difficult too, and it can be approximated by "... but sadly they don't know how to use it"

This original is Claudian, "natura beatis / Omnibus esse dedit, si quis cognoverit uti" as part of his invective Against Rufinus Book 1, 215-216; this translation is Maurice Platnauer 1922

  • It's not really relevant that it's a translation from Latin: it doesn't particularly reflect any Latin syntax. The point is that it is a very literary style in English - both the inverted condition (knew they = if they knew) and the meaning of but = only. – Colin Fine Jan 13 at 12:33
  • You're right, moved comment about Latin lower down, added original just for those interested. – jonathanjo Jan 13 at 14:39
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This is very archaic usage, possibly poetic even then (where does this come from, incidentally?)

Possibly the easiest way to understand this is to replace the word 'but' with 'if only' - (and a quick re-ordering) - to give:

if only they knew how to use it

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