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The Bush-Kennedy Bible

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  January 24, 2007 10:30 AM

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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?"

President Kennedy had used a version of the quotation -- "For of those to whom much is given, much is required" -- that was grammatically complete, though less florid than the King James version of Luke 12:48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." But John-John's stripped-down version is the one Bush has been using for years.

Of course, lots of familiar quotations get shortened or sweetened in everyday use: "Nice guys finish last," "Money is the root of all evil," "Play it again, Sam." (See Ralph Keyes's excellent book, "The Quote Verifier," for hundreds more.) But most of them remain grammatically sound, even when their sense is warped.

So how does this abbreviated Bible quote keep chugging along when essential parts of it have fallen off? I've always assumed that its users think that since it sounds quaint, it doesn't have to make sense -- like the people who think "their cups runneth over" is adorably archaic.

So I was pleased to see that theory echoed by Mark Liberman, at the end of a long and erudite discussion with fellow linguists, at Language Log this morning:

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. . . . 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."

That shouldn't be read as an endorsement of the mangled quote, though. Liberman headlines his blog post "Ungrammatical timeless truths."

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