January 24, 2007

Ungrammatical timeless truths

Pat Schwieterman wrote:

While listening to the President's State of the Union Address tonight, I was struck by this sentence: "Our work in the world is also based on a timeless truth: To whom much is given, much is required." I instinctively want to expand that timeless truth to something like this: "Much is required to those to whom much is given." But that sounds ungrammatical. The obvious problem here is that "required" isn't accompanied by "of" or "from," so my native speaker instinct starts looking for a parallel to the "to whom much is given" construction – and that doesn't fly as far as I can tell.

At first I thought that a speech-writer had decided to signal Bush's commitment to bipartisanship by quoting a speech by John F. Kennedy; under great time pressure, they hadn't checked to make sure that the allusion was grammatically compatible with its new environment. Here's what Kennedy said in a speech before the Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on January 9, 1961: "For of those to whom much is given, much is required."

But Kennedy needn't have been the source; a bit more Googling showed that he was apparently alluding to Luke 12.48: "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded." (Oxford NRSV Bible)

I believe that the proximate source is probably the Gates Foundation, which presents a similarly abbreviated version of the same quotation on its web site:

There are two simple values that lie at the core of the foundation’s work:
* All lives—no matter where they are being led—have equal value.
* To whom much has been given, much is expected.

Barbara Partee, Geoff Pullum and I discussed this in email about a month ago. Barbara wrote:

I've just learned from the Sunday NYT Magazine (the cover article) that one of the "simple values" listed on the Gates Foundation website is the following:

"To whom much has been given, much is expected."

I'm writing not to knock it -- I think it's nice, it's certainly quotable and "sounds like" a good aphorism, and I don't know any equally nice way to say it that I would consider actually grammatical.

I'm writing more as a challenge -- how do we explain it to ourselves, and how might we defend it to the prescriptivists who will surely notice it too?

My own first reactions were just funny: My first impulse, quickly rejected, was "No, it's "FROM whom much has been given, much is expected." But while that's fine for the 'expected' part, it's no good for the 'given' part -- no one preposition is good for both. So that led to my second impulse: ""From to whom much has been given, much is expected." -- no, garbage! Maybe "From whom much has been given to, much is expected"? Conceivably that one is possible, but it could hardly be uglier, and I'm not sure I can even parse it. Of course you could make the last two clearly grammatical with an added "those" after "from", but that's not anything anyone would want on their website, any more than Winston was inclined to substitute a pedantic "as" for their incorrect but catchy "like".

But how did they get to that formulation, and why, in spite of its evident impossibility, does it "sound" just fine to me, and in fact pleasing (notwithstanding the fact that it did immediately make me sit up and then come running to my computer!)?

My response:

About the quotation -- the original is Luke 12:48, which in the KJV is

But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.

The Vulgate has

qui autem non cognovit et fecit digna plagis vapulabit paucis omni autem cui multum datum est multum quaeretur ab eo et cui commendaverunt multum plus petent ab eo

So the critical section would be

cui multum datum est multum quaeretur ab eo
"to whom much has been given, much will be asked of him"

[Update -- Martin Hardcastle supplies the Greek, which is the original version and the source of most English translations:

panti de hôi edothê polu, polu zêtêthêsetai par' autou
"to each one (but) to whom much has been given, much will be required from him

Martin also observes that "The panti here (which appears as omni in the Latin) probably helps to explain why so many of the English versions you quote end up being in the plural". I guess that means I should have started the Latin version with omni autem cui "but to all whom"...]

There's a version attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes that reads

"Of those to whom much has been given, much is expected."

Those are all grammatical. The Gates foundation version is the Holmes version with the initial "of those" deleted, which makes it ungrammatical.

As to why it nevertheless works well enough to fool the Gates people and the NYT, I guess it's an Escher sentence.

Of course, that's supposing that there isn't some clever parse that is escaping me.

Barbara answered:

...it looks like the KJV is using something like a correlative relative construction, which we don't usually have in English (are you sure you find it grammatical in English, and not by using your knowledge of languages in which it would be?), and I don't know whether to call the Latin Vulgate version a correlative construction or something like a donkey pronoun -- your translation doesn't sound quite like normal English to me, though; and the Holmes one is what to me sounds perfectly grammatical and ordinary but pedantic, so I support the Gateses' choice in rendering it ungrammatical but pleasant-sounding the way they did.

And Geoff commented:

Lovely observation. They are of course caught in a trap trying to avoid preposition stranding (your "From whom much has been given to"is the only roughly grammatical version). But there's one more thing about it that makes it difficult and clumsy: at root, they're trying to do a fused relative construction (absurdly called a "headless relative clause" by some, who have not noticed that it is neither headless nor a clause, and obscurely called a "free relative" by others who are STILL trying to make the decision to get themselves a copy of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) with "who" as the head.

Fused relatives with "who" as head are now very rare, almost extinct. Shakespeare's Iago says "Who steals my purse steals trash", but that's Elizabethan; Jespersen cites "Who decides is the wife", but it has a real 100-years-old feel to it; and E. E. Cummings wrote "Who pays any attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you", and also "Always the more beautiful answer who asks the more beautiful question" (both quoted by Ross), but Cummings was a bit weird (he certainly provides examples that those who pay attention to the syntax of things will want to pay attention to). But in general, this has gone: you don't say things like

?*Who Mike spent last night with stole his wallet.

So clauses with "who" as subject are not fused relatives anymore. You have to rise above that to get to this:

?*Who much has been given to will sometimes not admit it.

And fronting the preposition is outright forbidden:

**To whom much has been given will sometimes not admit it.

(It gives you a PP subject, for one thing.) Now try and put the same kind of phrase in another PP:

***We should expect generous charitable giving from whom much has been given to.

And now do a repeat occurrence of the forbidden fronting:

****We should expect generous charitable giving from to whom much has been given.

It's certainly not surprising that the effort to construct the slogan crashed and burned. What's surprising is that the writer didn't actually get sent to jail.

What the writer ended up doing was resorting to a sort of pidgin version, with a whole preposition left out, and a sort of Cummingsy feel to the thing; he just blushed and struggled and didn't pay attention to the syntax of things, and hoped no one who knew anyone at Language Log Plaza would notice. I see he lost his wager with fate.

Geoff promised to blog this, and eventually he probably will, but for now you'll have to make do with the strictly-among-us-linguists version that he sent in email.

Let me just add here that President Bush appeared to recognize the problem in real time, because he stumbled on the key phrase, just after "to whom much is":

There's still a psycholinguistic mystery: why does a plainly and straightforwardly ungrammatical sentence go down so easy for so many people, including Barbara Partee, one of the greatest linguists of the age? I don't think this is a matter of artificial prescriptive grammar differing from the true grammar implicit in general usage (whether formal or vernacular). Calling it an "Escher sentence" at best gives it a name, not an explanation. (And I'm not sure that the same things are going on here as in sentences like "More people have written about this than I have".)

My current guess is that we encounter fused relatives in historical sources -- Shakespeare, some bible translations, and so on -- and we grasp the intended meaning without being able to process the form (in the unreflective psycholinguistic sense, not the draw-the-tree-on-the-blackboard sense). From this experience, we learn that there's a sort of grammatical get-out-of-jail-free card given to high-sounding old-fashioned sentences in which relative clauses serve as noun phrases. Thus if you come across such a sentence, you should figure out what it ought to mean, and not worry too much about how it gets there.

[Turning briefly from form to content, I don't think there's any political -- or theological -- issue lurking in the distinctions between "expected" and "required", or "much has been given" vs. "much is given". But I could be wrong.]

[Update -- according to Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe today ("The Bush-Kennedy Bible", 1/24/2007), the original quote-mangler may have been JFK Jr.:

Maybe President Bush thought he was quoting the Bible (or maybe not) in last night's State of the Union. But actually, he was quoting John F. Kennedy Jr. Back in 1997, in a Word column, I rapped an editor's letter in JFK Jr.'s magazine, George, for its execrable prose, including the syntactically defective misquotation "To whom much is given, much is expected, right?"


[Update 1/26/2007 -- no, it seems (see here) that incoherent versions of this maxim have been appearing in print for almost 200 years...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 24, 2007 07:19 AM