A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Noble but unparsable sentiments

Mark Liberman, in his usual engaging way, discusses “the tangled history of a mangled maxim” at Language Log.

It was prompted by a statement in Bush’s State of the Union address: “Our work in the world is also based on a timeless truth: To whom much is given, much is required,” which should be (to be parsable) something like “To whom much is given, of them much is required.”

Liberman notes that this eventually goes back to the New Testament, specifically Luke 12:48, which, in King James’s Engish, is: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” The more modern Revised Standard Version has:

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.

I’m wondering whether, along with all the linguistic reasons given as
possible ‘just so’ stories for the transmutation to the “To whom much
is given, much is required” variants, whether another reason is the
desire to avoid apparent sexism in the Bible versions. Take the RSV,
remove the clause containing ‘him’ and you get:

To whom much was given, much of him will be required.

which (modulo tense) is the same as Bush’s aphorism.

(Update: I should have noted that the title is a quote from Liberman’s post.)


2 responses to “Noble but unparsable sentiments

  1. josh January 29, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    Bush clearly has problems with agreement/parallelism. Either that, or what goes on in his head is just downright scary: “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.” (2004/08/05)

  2. Will January 29, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    I really don’t like Bush at all, but I don’t think he has a much greater problem with parallel constructions than other native English speakers — obviously, his speech is investigated more carefully than others’, all the more so because he’s been quayled. Plus, the state of the union address is undoubtedly written by others. And Liberman notes in the original post that Bush actually hesitated in saying this, as if he were uncertain as to its correctness.

    I think an even better ‘just so’ story is that the speechwriter was actually thinking of that other timeless truth, and carried over its structure imperfectly: With great power comes great responsibility.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: