July 08, 2004


In the process of composing a small rant about the unreliability of journalists, it occurred to me to wonder who invented the phrase "the fourth estate". Google immediately told me: Edmund Burke via Thomas Carlyle, with the first citation apparently being this one:

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all.

Thomas Carlyle (1841) On Heroes: Hero Worship and the Heroic in History

"More important than they all"? Surely that's not grammatical.

I know about than the preposition vs. than the introducer of elliptical clauses, but this example took me (intuitively, not analytically) aback. It seems many people have agreed with me, to the extent of silently correcting Carlyle's text: "more important than them all" has 63 whG (web hits on Google), most of which are modified versions of the Carlyle quote. By comparison, "more important than they all" has only 31 whG.

So we can add this to the list of quotations that are quoted more often in a modified form than in the original.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 8, 2004 08:42 AM