Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Before the grace of God

In today's Times -- on the website, and still in print as of 12:30 -- guest columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, "'There before the grace of hard parents go I' was the lesson of my life."

The usual formula is "There but for the grace of God go I," but Coates's "before the grace" is a not uncommon variant on the Web. And though I couldn't find it in the Eggcorn Database, it's easy enough to see the alternative reading, with "before" meaning "without, until the bestowal of." (Not a reading that bears too much scrutiny, but then, we don't tend to scrutinize these phrases.)

It's not the first time I've been taken aback by a variation on this saying. Two years ago, I blogged about a truncated form that also appeared in the Times (among other places, including a Keith Urban song): "But for the grace of God go I" all by itself, with no there there. Just further evidence that we don't need all the words -- or even notice all the words -- once a fixed expression is sufficiently familiar.

4 comments:

Jonathon said...

"Just further evidence that we don't need all the words -- or even notice all the words -- once a fixed expression is sufficiently familiar."

Interesting—I'd never really thought of it that way before, but it makes perfect sense. It also explains expressions like "could care less" and sayings like "to whom much is given, much is required". The meaning stops being compositional and starts being apprehended from the phrase as a whole, whether or not they actually make sense or are grammatical.

Ø said...

In "Mr. Tambourine Man" Bob Dylan sings "and but for the sky there are no fences facing". For decades I thought it was "before the sky ..."

Marc Leavitt said...

It's an eggcorn. Ditto the Dylan lyric(except I prefer the misunderstanding. The poetry is more evocative than in the original).

Bryan M. White said...

Interestingly, "before" might work in the original saying, in the sense you suggested, but I don't really see how it works in the variation quoted here. Could the writer really fathom a time before they were in their parent's graces?