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I titled a short story "The Girl without a Soul". But recently I've been thinking on naming it "The Girl who didn't have a Soul."

Do they mean exactly the same thing? Is there an advantage to using one over the other? As a short story title, what impressions will readers get when they see the different titles?

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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Apr 21 '12 at 18:47

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

This should go on writers.se – FumbleFingers Apr 18 '12 at 12:58
@FumbleFingers - In the future, we'd appreciate it if you could check before migrating this sort of question here. We've closed a lot of questions sent here from English. – Neil Fein Apr 21 '12 at 20:10
Alex, I understand that you didn't ask this question here on Writers, but I'm closing it here as it's really asking for opinion with very little background. Asking for the meaning of these two phrases is a question better suited for English than here, and asking which sounds better is just an opinion question with no real way to back it up. If you'd like to edit this into a question we could reopen here, we'd be happy to help. (For example, perhaps going into depth about the story and its tone, so we have a way of judging the title, as well as its intended market or where you want to sell it.) – Neil Fein Apr 21 '12 at 20:14
@FumbleFingers: This question was closed as 'off-topic' in the English SE because as it was felt that it didn't meet requirements, but the first bullet point on the faq says that questions on 'usage, word choice, and grammar' are welcomed there. This is most definitely a question of 'usage, word choice, and grammar' and should not have been closed as off topic. It could have been worded better, but the core question: the advantages and proper usage of "without" versus "didn't have" is a question of 'usage, word choice, and grammar' and should be welcome in the English SE and not Writers SE. – Jed Oliver Apr 23 '12 at 1:57
I'm not appreciative of "do you like this phrase? how about this phrase?" as a question type. I'm not sure if it's off-topic, but it's not very constructive, and I'd really need to hear the OP's own understanding and considerations to give any sort of feedback. – Standback May 3 '12 at 10:32

This may seem like a trivial distinction, but as a title choice it's important as the title conveys an overall sense of the tone of the story.

First of all, the use of the contraction didn't is less formal than without so it might be best to consider the verbiage you've used throughout the story and match the word choice to the formality of the voice in the story. Next, "without" is more concise as it's a single word, and can't is a contraction of two words plus requires the use of "have". If your language is meandering in the story and not overall concise, to show your reader that you would maybe consider can't.

Now that the technical differences are spelled out, without conveys an absence of a soul, when I hear "without a soul" I think of a void, of absence and of longing, and seems more wistful of the two, whereas "didn't have" seems less of a statement of absence and void and more a statement of loss. None of that is specifically spelled out by the definitions, this is more of a connotative distinction and more of a conveyance of the unspoken feelings the words conjure. If the story is more about loss, maybe "didn't have" is better, whereas if the story is about absence, a void and of longing, it seems that "without" would be a better choice. Didn't have also seems like it has more of a 'concrete' or definite feeling, as opposed to the wistful ethereal feeling conveyed by without. Again, pick the choice that is more in line with the words you've used in the story.

Finally, and maybe the most important consideration, "didn't have" is past tense while "without" is present. If the girl gets a soul later in the story, it may be more apropos to use "didn't have", or another synonymous past tense phrase, if she doesn't get a soul, it might be a better idea to use "without". That said, if your style is to withhold clues from the reader about the ultimate end of the story rather than try to let them guess at your intention, reverse that advice.

Hope this helps!

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+1 for pointing out "didn't have" is past tense and "without" is present tense – Patches May 3 '12 at 5:53
I wonder if I'm going to get a green check :( – Nathan C. Tresch May 4 '12 at 17:52

"The Girl Without a Soul" scans better, because it comprises three pairs of unstressed-stressed syllables. "Who Didn't Have" does seem more childlike, so might be appropriate if you imagine the title being spoken by the child's peers.

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