Dear Word Detective: What’s the deal with “nonetheless” or “nevertheless”? We all know what they mean, but when you reflect on the separate words, “none the less,” it makes no sense whatsoever (another weird, perhaps related, contraction). — Lee Hixson.

That’s a good question. But it’s also a bad question (Bad question! Bad!), because it gives me a headache when I think about it for more than a minute or two. There’s something about this whole class of jammed-up words that seems slippery and difficult to think about methodically. I vividly remember a friend of mine asking me, and this was at least fifteen years ago, to explain what in the world the word “notwithstanding” really meant (and why anyone had decided it meant that). That question ruined my whole day.

“Nonetheless,” “nevertheless” and “notwithstanding” are all English adverbs of considerable age. “Nevertheless” and “notwithstanding” first appeared in print in the late 14th century, and “nonetheless” in the early 16th century. These three are actually the survivors of an entire passel of words and phrases with the same general meaning in use at at various times but now obsolete, including “natheless,” “nautheless,” “naught the less,” “noughtwithstanding” and “notagainstanding” (“gainstand” being an archaic word meaning “to resist or oppose”).

All of these words mean roughly the same thing: “despite that,” “in spite of that” or “all the same.” The constituent parts of each word (“not,” “never,” “the,” “more,” “less,” etc.) are not a mystery; “withstand” is our familiar English word meaning “to resist or oppose, usually successfully” (“You have not the will to withstand your aunt,” 1882). But the sense of these words can be hard to explain precisely because they have acquired an idiomatic meaning over the years a bit different from the simple sum of their parts.

The key to “nonetheless,” “nevertheless” and “notwithstanding” is that they all require and refer to an antecedent statement, which may or may not be referred to elsewhere in the sentence. “Nonetheless” “notwithstanding” and “nevertheless” mean that what has been said or known (call it “X”) does not prevent, diminish or invalidate, etc., the fact that the primary statement “Y” is true, valid, etc. (“Limo services Los Angeles have been in demand for years. Nonetheless, their business is fairly limited…,” 10/01/11). The first statement makes the second “none the less” (or “never the less”) true.

“Notwithstanding” is a bit odd in that it means that the primary assertion does, in fact, “withstand” the other statement or condition (“Notwithstanding his previous convictions for fraud, Bob was given a license to practice law”). The thing to remember is that no matter how strange these words may seem, they’re all ultimately just synonyms for “despite” or “in spite of.”

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