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I have a question about the following sentence.

It cannot be but that some of the letters will give you pain....(Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne)

Which does this sentence mean, (a) "some of the letters might give you some pain" or (b) "some of the letter must give you some pain"? Or does this sentence mean something else? I appreciate your help very much.

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    "cannot be but that" is archaic, it means "it can't be other than", which essentially means "it must be". So this is saying that it must be true that some of the letters will give you pain.
    – Barmar
    Apr 23, 2022 at 6:57
  • @Barmar Please use comments to ask for more information or suggest improvements. Avoid answering questions in comments.
    – NVZ
    Apr 23, 2022 at 10:39
  • @NVZ: Why not? If the question is simple-minded enough to answer in a comment, it should be. Nobody ever looks in the answers anyway. Apr 23, 2022 at 13:40
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    @JohnLawler Because now the asker cannot mark the answer as Accepted, and because nobody wants to wade through a conversation thread trying to sift out the answer. These problems that plague internet forums are the very problems that Stack Exchange was created to address. If you work within the system, these problems do not arise. If you work outside the system, they return to plague us.
    – tchrist
    Apr 23, 2022 at 13:42
  • @NVZ We also expect answers to be supported more thoroughly than I was prepared to do.
    – Barmar
    Apr 23, 2022 at 23:06

2 Answers 2

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This expression of inevitability is a glowing ember of the teaching of Latin in the 18th ad 19th centuries to boys and some girls in well-to do families. And of all the features of Latin that they dreaded, the worst were the two words 'quominus' and 'quin'. They introduce subordinate clauses expressing prevention, impossibility and inevitability. And the worst of these syntactic beasts is that there is no possible way of translating either into English that does not look a bit weird.

Quin (followed by a subjunctive) is the worse of the two. The most familiar (to victims of Latin) example of its use is the expression

Nemo est quin sciat.

It means 'everybody knows'. Literally, this simple English clause is saying

There is nobody such that he would not know.

But the teachers and translators picked as the subordinating conjunction the expression 'but that' and offered their readers and schoolboys the literalistic translation

There is nobody but that (he) knows.

And it caught on. It became clear that anyone speaking like that was properly educated - had mastered the dreaded quin.

The use of but was not as crazy, however, as I have made it sound. There is a well established concessive usage of but as a preposition, meaning except or other than. So a parent might grumble

My daughter is friendly and talkative with everyone but me. So The Cambridge English provides definition But preposition, conjunction B1 except - with the example This car has been nothing but trouble.

And it gives examples of this subordinating use of but as a conjunction:

in these cases there is no choice but to amputate (which would go straight into Latin as quin amputarent and get forced into English by 19th century (and a few 20th century) Latin masters as but that they might amputate.

I think the Cambridge English definitions will give you the detail you need [www.dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/but]

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Saying:

  1. It cannot be but that (SOME CLAUSE).

Means the same thing as:

  1. The only possibility is that (SOME CLAUSE).

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