Writing in this morning's Times about Tony Robbins's new reality TV show, Alessandra Stanley summed up the appeal of such real-life rescues: "These shows tap into viewers' 'but for the grace of God go I' horror at heartbreaking stories."
Wait, said my husband -- "but for the grace of God go I where?" The standard formulation is "There but for the grace of God go I" (add commas if you like) or, elliptically, "There but for the grace of God …" But we had never seen the saying without a "there" tucked in somewhere.
In this case but for means "if not for," "were it not for," and it needs a conclusion. But for seems to be considered a conjunction, but here it has the force of a protasis, the "if" clause in a conditional. Maybe a real grammarian can give me a better description, but this much I know: "If not for the grace of God, I go," period, doesn't make sense.
After a little research, I'm inclined to blame Keith Urban and his co-songwriters:
But for the grace of God go I
I must've been born a lucky guy
he sings, and not until the end of the song does he use but for in the standard way, completing the thought:
I'd be lost
But for the grace of God.
The original saying looks to be about 200 years old, though its authorship is uncertain. "There, but for the grace of God, go I" is often attributed to John Bradford, the Protestant divine martyred in 1555, I learned from The Phrase Finder: "The earliest example of it that I have found is in 'A treatise on prayer,' by Edward Bickersteth, 1822, in which the author repeats the Bradford story."
But there's no hard evidence that Bradford said it, and the sentiment was widely repeated throughout the 19th century, with and without attribution. Some Google Books cites:
"Had he truly possessed gratitude, he … would have said in his heart, 'I should have been as that publican, but for the grace of God.'" (The Missionary Magazine, 1802)
"The best amongst you may look upon the vilest of the human race and say, 'Such an one might I have been, but for the grace of God!'" ("Horae homilecticae," 1832)
"The author of Pilgrim's Progress [said], on seeing a condemned malefactor passing on his way to Tyburn, — 'Ah, me! but for the grace of God, there goes John Bunyan.'" (Annual Report of the Massachusetts Dept. of Education, 1848)
"Said Wesley once when he saw a murderer led out to execution, 'but for the grace of God there goes John Wesley.'" ("Itinerating Libraries and Their Founder," 1856)
This seems to be yet another case of modern usage losing its grip on a semi-archaic construction. It's happening with the subjunctive "suffice it to say." It was evident in Ray Charles's misinterpretation of the subjunctive in his embellishments of "America," which Geoff Pullum and I noticed at almost the same moment. It's revealed in the many manglings of the Biblical "unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required," and, of course, in all those ungrammatical jokes about cups (plural) that "runneth" over. But picky editors have to remember that the adage applies to everyone: There but for the grace of God go we, too.