Let’s Look At “Lest”

By Maeve Maddox

Recently I’ve noticed some odd uses of the word lest. Some may be no more than typographical errors, but others appear to result from a misunderstanding of the meaning and function of the conjunction lest.

Lest introduces a clause expressive of something to be avoided or guarded against. Here are some examples:

In helping my son pack for college, I tucked in a newly framed photo of the family for him to take with him lest he forget what we all looked like.

There’s a scene in the movie where the master chef — who’s in his eighties — explains that as a younger man, sushi recipes would come to him in his sleep. And he would jump out of bed to write them down, lest he forget them by morning.

Clip back any branches and remove any plants that will be in the way before you begin, lest you tread on them while erecting the fence.

Another use of lest following a verb of fearing, or phrases indicating apprehension or danger, is to introduce a clause expressing what is feared. Here are examples of this usage:

I’m afraid to open the door and check, lest she be sleeping and I wake her up. 

I’m afraid to leave because I am afraid of walking past our building manager’s office, lest she realize I’m unemployed.

The chief errors I’ve noticed with lest are these:

1. Following lest with not:

INCORRECT: Then Rubio pivoted to Obama, lest not alienate Republicans who like what Trump has to say. (Alex Leary, Tampa Bay Times,)
CORRECT : Then Rubio pivoted to Obama, lest he alienate Republicans who like what Trump has to say.

Lest is already negative, so it shouldn’t be used with not. Because lest introduces a clause, it should be followed by the subject of the clause that expresses whatever is to be avoided.

2. Introducing a sentence fragment with lest.

INCORRECT: Lest he forget that 70% of American Jews voted for Obama and find the politics of the modern GOP repugnant. (Wayne Besen, Falls Church News-Press)
CORRECT : Netanyahu shouldn’t forget that 70% of American Jews voted for Obama and find the politics of the modern GOP repugnant. 

Sometimes a sentence fragment is an effective stylistic choice, but not when it is introduced by lest. A clause introduced by lest needs to be attached to a main clause. The fragment “lest we forget” is frequently used in connection with memorial services, but a main clause is implied: “We build monuments and hold memorial services lest we forget the sacrifices of the departed.”

3. Confusing lest with the contraction let’s

INCORRECT: And lest not forget Jefferson’s role in the XYZ Affair – where he sabotaged Adams’ negotiations with the French to avert a war. (Education site called Reinvented Solutions)
CORRECT : And let’s not forget Jefferson’s role in the XYZ Affair – where he sabotaged Adams’ negotiations with the French to avert a war. 

Related post
Least vs Lest

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