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Could you help me understand the following sentence:

There was not a line in her countenance, not a note in her soft and sleepy voice, but spoke of an entire contentment with her life.

At first, I understood Every line in her face, every note in her soft and sleepy voice, said that she was entirely satisfy with her life

but my friend told me that it means

There was no line in her face, no note in her soft voice, that expressed that she was entirely satisfied with her life"

What is right and why?

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  • 2
    Question quote corrected from that spoke of an entire contentment to *but spoke of an entire contentment.. Dec 13, 2020 at 18:17
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    @Heisgg: My answer is wrong, I misunderstood your sentence. So I think it is fair to accept Kate's answer not mine. Otherwise it will confuse people, and it would be a shame.
    – fev
    Dec 13, 2020 at 20:49
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    @Heisgg: Thank you, justice has been done, and I am grateful to have learnt something I did not know.
    – fev
    Dec 14, 2020 at 10:45

3 Answers 3

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Your interpretation is the correct one.

There was not a line in her countenance... but spoke of an entire contentment...

means that every line did speak of it. But in this context means the same as that did not.

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  • thank you for you`re correction! Dec 14, 2020 at 10:44
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    You're (=you are) welcome - but you should have written your correction! Dec 14, 2020 at 11:43
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    Worth noting perhaps that this is a particularly confusing sentence even to a native speaker, as this use of "but" is uncommon at best, possibly archaic.
    – Hearth
    Dec 14, 2020 at 16:46
  • @Hearth I wouldn't say it was archaic, so much as poetic.
    – MikeB
    Dec 14, 2020 at 17:05
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https://www.dictionary.com/browse/but :

4 without the circumstance that:
It never rains but it pours.

This is an archaic usage (this passage is from Across the Plains, written in 1892 by Robert Louis Stevenson), and you should not use it in your writing. The example the dictionary gives is a set phrase; outside of those well-known phrases, this usage is confusing.

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  • thank you for you`re point out! but there seems to be a misunderstanding.We are not writing, we are interpreting. the sentence is from "영어순해" chapter 17-10. here is the link : yes24.com/Product/Goods/4640754 Dec 14, 2020 at 10:48
  • but i have a question, why this usage is confusing? can you show me example? Dec 14, 2020 at 10:54
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    @HeisggTjsh it's simply that most modern English speakers wouldn't use "but" in this particular way, and so we're not used to interpreting it, so if you used it in writing it would likely cause the reader to, at best, have to pause and contemplate the meaning, and at worst, misunderstand (like your friend did). Other uses of "but" are still common, but this one which means something like "that did not" isn't common.
    – Muzer
    Dec 14, 2020 at 11:21
  • @HeisggTjsh It's confusing because, in the context, "but" means something like 'unless', where we now use "but" almost exclusively to mean we're bringing up an exception. "It never rains but it pours" is intended to mean "It never rains unless it pours", but to us it sounds like it ought to mean "It never rains; however sometimes it pours" which makes no sense (because pouring is a specific kind of raining). Today, the phrase is often rewritten to be more clear by simply removing the negative: "When it rains, it pours." Dec 14, 2020 at 21:14
  • @muzer thank you for you`re kind answer! i can understand it! Dec 17, 2020 at 13:12
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Other answers have already correctly identified that you are right and your friend is not.

I wanted to point out that you can interpret this as:

There was not a line in her countenance, not a note in her soft and sleepy voice, but [the ones that] spoke of an entire contentment with her life.

Basically, "all the wrinkles on her face are from smiling, and every inflection in her voice is a happy one." Here 'but' just means 'except' (which is still pretty common). The archaic thing is omitting the relative pronoun. The pattern of omitting a relative pronoun to create a subjectless relative clause was quite common in Middle and Early Modern English, but is nowadays restricted to sentences with indefinite-pronoun antecedents, existential sentences, and cleft sentences. (See this reference which I've not read in full (it being paywalled), but which I'm including for the citation of Quirk et al. 1985, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, regarding relative pronoun elision). Affirmative, rather than negated, examples include things like "There's a table stands in the corner" or "There's a pain goes on and on."

I emphasized 'existential sentences' above because the type of sentence you are citing here is an existential sentence. (I had written this up in the first draft of my answer but deleted it since I didn't want to get sidetracked... oh well.) In the example 'There was not a line... but spoke of contentment', part of the meaning of the sentence is to stress that some lines do exist--specifically, the ones that speak of her contentment.

User ruakh does well to point out that the omitted relative pronoun needs to match the stated antecedent in number, even if the sentence is logically describing multiple people. For instance, his example from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me," while the speaker (Antipholus) presumably meets many people in a crowded market, replacing the omitted relative pronoun should give "There's not a man I meet but [he that] doth salute me." (This is in line with other uses of a singular to refer to multiple people individually, even though they are logically plural, e.g. 'England expects that every man will do his duty'.)

Thus, "There's no man but [he that] serves the king" and "There's no men but [those that] serve the king" would both be grammatical; "There's no men but [those that] serves the king" would be incorrect. Note also that the (somewhat fussy) rules of joint subjects apply: when the subject is joined with 'and', it is a joint subject, so "Every father and mother love their child" --> "There's no father and mother but love their child" (plural), but when 'or' or 'nor' is used as the conjunction, the overall subject is treated as having the number of the final antecedent. So:

  • "The officer or infantrymen serve the king" is correct, thus "No officer nor infantrymen but serve the king"
  • "The infantrymen or officer serves the king" is correct, thus "No infantrymen nor officer but serves the king"
  • "The infantrymen or officer serve the king" and "No infantrymen nor officer but serve the king" are both incorrect.

As you can probably tell, this comes up so rarely that examples to demonstrate it are rather contrived.

User Accumulation is correct that this is somewhat archaic, but I think many native speakers would understand it if they noticed the word 'but'. (I mean I think it is unusual, but still productive in a linguistic sense.) You will see the same construction in phrases like "No god but God" or "No war but class war". The first example is the title of a book that was written in 2005, and the latter phrase is an anarchist slogan that still shows up in graffiti, so people clearly expect others to understand this grammar structure. If you do choose to use it, though, you might want to keep it brief, so listeners don't miss the 'but'. Note also that, being already the product of omitting some words, the structure lends itself to heavily elided phrases such as slogans and somewhat poetic statements.

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  • This isn't really accurate. In the "not a <noun> but <verb>" construction, the verb is singular, as in "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me" (from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors; emphasis mine); whereas in a hypothetical "not a <noun> but the ones that <verb>" construction like you propose, the verb would be plural. (That said, if silently translating "not a <noun> but <verb>" to "not a <noun> but the ones that <verb>" makes it easier for you to make sense of it, then sure, go for it.)
    – ruakh
    Dec 15, 2020 at 7:14
  • Yes, the verb does agree with the visible subject, rather than the elided relative pronoun.
    – Tiercelet
    Dec 15, 2020 at 19:44
  • More accurately -- there is no elided relative pronoun here. Your "but [the ones that]" suggestion is fine if it's helpful, but it's not a literal explanation of the grammar.
    – ruakh
    Dec 15, 2020 at 19:51
  • @ruakh I'm saying 'there is an elided relative pronoun and the verb agrees with the last verbalized noun.' You're saying 'there is no elided relative pronoun and the verb agrees with the last verbalized noun.' Is there any evidentiary basis that would distinguish these two models? What 'literal explanation of the grammar' are you envisioning?
    – Tiercelet
    Dec 15, 2020 at 20:59
  • I already offered contrary evidence -- and then you just tacked it onto your model by adding "and [contrary evidence]" to the end. If you plan to continue doing that, then the two models become "there's an elided 'the ones that' and also [all evidence]" vs. "[all evidence]". Those two models aren't on equal footing; the former fails Occam's Razor.
    – ruakh
    Dec 15, 2020 at 22:04

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