I have a question about the phrases "without doing" and "not doing".

When someone was reading a book, I asked him if the book was interesting, and he said he didn't know while still reading the book. When I talk about this later, are these sentences both appropriate?

He said he didn't know, without looking up from his book.

He said he didn't know, not looking up from his book.

  • 4
    Without is more idiomatic. In writing, 'Without looking up from his book, he said...' or 'He said, without looking up from his book, that he didn't know'. Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 12:24
  • 1
    Not puts more emphasis on the irony – the book must be interesting, at least enough that he cannot look away from it.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 13:09

1 Answer 1


To me, the second sentence feels like it has a bit more literary flair (I don’t think it would be as appropriate as the second in verbal conversation).

What’s also interesting here, is that the first sentence, and not the second, could be written without the comma, which I think is where the difference lies. The first sentence is much more “matter-of-fact”.

Personally, I can’t imagine ever relating this to someone verbally using this kind of language; both statements sound too formal to me. I also can’t imagine seeing whether the person looked up from their book or not as particularly significant.

It would perhaps depend on exactly what I was inferring from his not looking up, but I would perhaps say something like.

He said he didn’t know and kept reading.

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