Dusty Phrases

Hi! Welcome to “Dusty Phrases.” You will find below an ancient phrase in one language or another, along with its English translation. You may also find the power to inspire your friends or provoke dread among your enemies.

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ἐκ τῶν ὧν οὐκ ἄνευ
Ek tôn hôn ouk áneu


Without things which [one can]not [be] without

This is an ancient legal term, known also to the Romans by the Latin phrase: Sine qua non

You might think of this today, in English, as a “but for…” clause. From Wiki:

The phrase indicates an indispensable and essential action, condition, or ingredient. It was originally a Latin legal term for “[a condition] without which it could not be”, “but for…”, or “without which [there is] nothing.” Also, “sine qua non causation” is the formal terminology for “but-for causation.”

As a Latin term, it occurs in the work of Boethius, and originated in Aristotelian expressions. In Classical Latin, the form uses the word condicio (from the verb condicocondicere, to agree upon), but in later Latin the phrase is also used with conditio, an error in translation as conditio means construction and not condition.

It has passed from a merely legal usage to a more general usage in many languages, including EnglishGermanFrenchItalian and Spanish.


In legal matters, “but-for“, “sine qua non“, causa sine qua non, or “cause-in-fact” causation, or condicio sine qua non, is a circumstance in which a certain act is a material cause of a certain injury or wrongdoing, without which the injury would not have occurred. It is established by the “but-for” test: but for the act having occurred, the injury would not have happened.

The defendant’s negligent conduct is the actual cause of the plaintiff’s injury if the harm would not have occurred to the plaintiff “but for” the negligent conduct of the defendant. (Perkins)

This type of causation is often contrasted with substantial-factor causation. The substantial factor test is used when there are multiple negligent tortfeasors which either (1) all caused the injury, in which case any and all of them are 100% joint and severally liable (treated as the group but suing the money) and the charged defendant would have to implead or sue the others to square the damages, or (2) only one could have actually caused the injury but they were all negligent in the same way and that one cannot be determined, in which case the burden shifts and any of them that cannot show their negligence was not the cause is 100% joint and severally liable. The purpose of this is allow the aggrieved party to get their damages, and make the negligent tortfeasors square up amongst themselves. See e.g. Hill v. Edmonds (N.Y., 1966); Anderson v. Minneapolis, St. P. & S. St. M. Ry. Co. (Minn., 1920)

In Rogers v. Bromac Title Servs. LLC, the United States Fifth Circuit interpreted the language of the Jury System Improvement Act in prohibiting employers from terminating employees “by reason of” jury service as meaning “but-for” causation. That means that the employee must show that the termination of employment would not have occurred “but for” the jury service. That is a higher burden for the plaintiff employee than merely showing that the jury service was a motivating factor for the termination.