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I don't understand the syntax of this sentence. Please help me figure it out. I begin to feel confused at "but what". It's from "There Will Come Soft Rains", a short story by Ray Bradbury (1950).

There Will Come Soft Rains (pdf)

For not a leaf fragment blew under the door but what the wall panels flipped open and the copper scrap rats flashed swiftly out.

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  • The story is remarkably prescient for 1950: "Today is August 4, 2026," said a second voice from the kitchen ceiling, "in the city of Allendale, California." It repeated the date three times for memory's sake. "Today is Mr. Featherstone's birthday. Today is the anniversary of Tilita's marriage. Insurance is payable, as are the water, gas, and light bills." Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 21:00

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'But what' is informal American English, and here has the meaning 'except that', 'without that' or 'but that'.

but what

in American English

informal

but that; but who; who or that … not

Who knows but what the sun may still shine

But what (Collins Dictionary)

A leaf fragment never blew under the door without that the wall panels flipped open and the copper scrap rats flashed (rushed, luminously, perhaps, if they are copper) swiftly out.

A plainer, less poetic way of writing this might be

Every time a leaf fragment blew under the door, the wall panels flipped open and the copper scrap rats rushed swiftly out.

Ray Bradbury (1920 - 2012) was a well known fantasy writer, famous for the fantastical and unreal themes in his writing. His writing style has been called 'poetic'. Wall panels that flip open releasing 'copper scrap rats' are definitely fantastical and unreal, and Bradbury's way of writing about them is decidedly poetic.

The 2026 house of 'the future' (as envisaged in 1950) is equipped with metal robot rats and mice which emerge from flaps in the walls to gather up scraps of waste and trash, including fragments of leaves:

The offending dust, hair, or paper, seized in miniature steel jaws, was raced back to the burrows. There, down tubes which fed into the cellar, it was dropped into the sighing vent of an incinerator which sat like evil Baal in a dark corner.

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