Friday, June 7, 2013

Bernanke gets it right

Belated congratulations to Ben Bernanke, who included an oft-mangled Biblical passage in his commencement speech at Princeton last Sunday and managed to get it right: 
As the Gospel of Luke says (and I'm sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): "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."  It's kind of like grading on the curve.* 
The Kennedys were fond of the Biblical admonition too, and misquoted it through several generations. In 1997, I wrote a Globe column** about JFK Jr.'s garbled version, printed in his magazine, George: "To whom much is given, much is expected, right?"

But it turns out the passage has confounded would-be quoters for centuries. When Mark Liberman took up the question at Language Log, in 2007, he found ungrammatical versions dating back to 1826. "However you decide to connect everything up," he wrote, "somewhere in there you need to tell us that much is expected from people, when much is given to them." Apparently that's harder than it sounds, even for educated native speakers.

Bernanke also went with singular they in a couple of instances:
Life is amazingly unpredictable; any 22-year-old who thinks they know where they will be in 10 years, much less in 30, is simply lacking imagination.
Take a few minutes the first chance you get and talk to an alum participating in their 25th, or 30th, or 40th reunion.
These were departures from the published text, where the first quote read "any 22-year-old who thinks he or she knows where they will be," and the second had "his or her 25th ... reunion." In speech, of course, singular they is utterly  natural, and Bernanke didn't hesitate to use it.

*'I've quoted the speech as delivered; the text version has a couple of small differences, including a footnote for the Bible quotation: "Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible."
**Behind a paywall now, I'm sorry to say.


Kay L. Davies said...

Unfortunately, with no genderless pronoun except "it" we are bound to make do with "they" although I still cringe when I use it (no pun intended) to mean he or she.
I have been known to attempt making mincemeat out of women who demand gender equality in books written before they were born. I say, "He-slash-she-slash-they-slash-it gets my recommendation." Rather unfortunately, they look at me blankly most of the time.
I think the solution is right in front of us, in the title of your blog, we really should learn to throw grammar from the train, because it's a battle lost decades ago.

Faldone said...

Decades ago? How about centuries ago? But remember, if the thing you call grammar does not fit the language it purports to be the grammar of, the fault lies not with the language but with your grammar.

Bryan White said...

Hmmm, I left a comment about the singular "they." I think it got deleted with a bunch of anonymous comments that have been popping up all over Blogger recently.

Jan said...

Hi Bryan,
I saw your comment, and if I deleted it by mistake, I'm sorry. I guess it's possible I killed it along with all that spam.

Bryan White said...

No problem ;D

The spam has really been crazy lately. I thought that stuff was supposed to get filtered out.