Coherence award for Stephen King

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Jan Freeman, "Stephen King scores a grammar win", Throw Grammar from the Train, 3/20/2015:

Stephen King, novelist and resident of Maine and (sensible man!) Florida, has refuted the Maine governor’s claim that King had left the state to escape oppressive taxes.

"Governor LePage is full of the stuff that makes the grass grow green," the best-selling author told a local radio station. "Tabby and I pay every cent of our Maine state income taxes, and are glad to do it. We feel, as Governor LePage apparently does not, that much is owed from those to whom much has been given."

For me, that boldface sentiment is the news here: In its long quotation history, it has rarely been rendered grammatically. “From whom much is given, much is expected” – from John F. Kennedy Jr. — is just one mangled example. You'd think a Bible quotation would get some respect, but it turns out the human mind has a hard time supplying the right number of prepositions and pronouns to say what this maxim intends.

This started with an anti-income-tax jab in Governor LePage's weekly radio address:

[This passage has now been removed from the official online version…]

Stephen King responded with a statement on his own Bangor radio station — Steve Mistler, "Stephen King: LePage ‘full of the stuff that makes the grass grow green’", Portland Press Herald 3/19/2015:

“Governor LePage is full of the stuff that makes the grass grow green,” King said. “Tabby (King’s wife, Tabitha) and I pay every cent of our Maine state income taxes, and are glad to do it. We feel, as Governor LePage apparently does not, that much is owed from those to whom much has been given. We see our taxes as a way of paying back the state that has given us so much. State taxes pay for state services. There’s just no way around it. Governor LePage needs to remember there ain’t no free lunch.”

The episode has gotten quite a bit of coverage, though of course the focus has been political rather than linguistic.

On the linguistic angle, Jan links to an older LLOG post, "The tangled history of a mangled maxim", 1/26/2007 — see also "Ungrammatical timeless truths", 1/24/2007. This is one of those cases, like "More people have written about this than I have", and "No head injury is too trivial to ignore", where the syntax and semantics of English seem to take us beyond the computing capacity of our poor monkey brains, and most of us just have to fake it.



  1. GeorgeW said,

    March 21, 2015 @ 7:04 am

    And, "aint no free lunch." This seems to work where *'isn't no free lunch' does not and *'is not no free lunch' is even worse.

    [(myl) This is a case of subject-aux inversion, I believe, which some varieties of English apply in cases like this one, or "Don't nobody like him", etc. Formal English does something similar in e.g. "In no case will lunch be free".

    The version "There ain't no free lunch" has insertion of expletive there — but this is much less likely for e.g. "*There don't nobody believe that" as opposed to "Don't nobody believe that". ]

  2. Sandy Nicholson said,

    March 21, 2015 @ 7:34 am

    Perhaps I’m missing something here, but Stephen King’s reported paraphrase of (I presume) part of Luke 12:48 doesn’t seem quite as coherent to me as Jan Freeman suggests. I’d be much happier with it if it read: much is owed by those to whom much has been given. (Can anything really be owed from someone? Or am I misreading King completely?) Admittedly, King’s version is much closer to being grammatical than the garbled example attributed to JFK Jr., but I am surprised that this causes so much difficulty.

    [(myl) "…is owed from" seems OK to me, and is widely found in formal writing, e.g. from a translation of the Digest of Justinian: "When one of a soldier's heirs inherited the peculium castrense and the other, the rest of the property, and a debtor liable to one of the heirs wants to set off what is owed from the other, he will not be heard." Or from a history of the Scottish glass industry, "There are 152 debtors in Ainslie's list, ranging from the Duke of Hamilton to Patrick Chalmers, beltmaker. Money was owed from people throughout Scotland …"

    "X is owed by Y" is a passive form of "Y owes X", but "X is owed from Y" is a purely relational/adjectival form, analogous to "X is due from Y".]

    My guess is that problems arise as a result of people trying to remember the exact wording of an archaic (and to my modern ear, only marginally grammatical) translation such as the King James Version (unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required), which built on Tyndale’s earlier translation (vnto whom moche is geven of him shalbe moche requyred).

    Modern translations are far less obscure. For example, Today’s New International Version has: From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded. The English Standard Version runs closer to the KJV, but brings the universal ever(y) to the front where we would expect it: Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.

    [(myl) For dozens of translations and citations, grammatical/coherent and otherwise, see the cited 2007 posts.]

  3. John Baker said,

    March 21, 2015 @ 7:48 am

    I have trouble with "owed from." Shouldn't it be "owed by"? I would find that easier to follow.

    The biblical original is Luke 12:48, "unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." King may also have had in mind the JFK quotation, "For those to whom much is given, much is required." Both are, to my mind, clearer than the King version.

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    March 21, 2015 @ 8:22 am

    On the other hand, King apparently mangled (assuming accurate quotation) "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch." "There ain't no free lunch" just means you're outta luck today, buster, cuz the free lunch is all gone, whereas "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch" is the intended rebuke to those who believe they are getting something for nothing when they're not.

    [(myl) "Mangled" seems far too strong, given that "Ain't no free lunch" is vague as to the reasons — it might be occasion-specific, or it might be a logically (or at least pragmatically) necessary truth. And the phrase has been used in a generic sense in thousands of published works.]

  5. GeorgeW said,

    March 21, 2015 @ 11:23 am

    It seems that 'ain't-no-noun' is more acceptable than 'ain't-any-noun':
    There ain't no free lunch
    ?There ain't any free lunch
    There ain't no justice in . . .
    ?There ain't any justice in . . .

  6. Richard said,

    March 21, 2015 @ 4:01 pm

    I think it would at least be more rhythmic–as well as (I think!) being grammatical–to put it like this:

    From those to whom much has been given, much will be required.

  7. Joe Fineman said,

    March 21, 2015 @ 7:12 pm

    I see no difficulty in parsing “From whom much is given, much is expected”. It is short for "From him [to] whom much is given,…". For the omission of "to", cf. "much is given him". For the omission of "him", cf. "Who wills the end wills the means".

  8. blahedo said,

    March 21, 2015 @ 10:08 pm

    I think that part of what drives the confusion in phrasing is that the sentiment expressed is leaning heavily on symmetry and thus rhetorically asks for some sort of grammatical parallelism as well. Unconstrained by rhetoric and historical precedent, the most natural expressions of the idea might be of a form like "those who have received a lot ought to give in return," or "we have greater expectations of those who have more advantages" (or "privileges" or perhaps "luck"). There are lots of ways to express the basic idea, some with more nuance than others, that are not cognitively complicated and seem unlikely to trigger the problems mentioned in the above post.

    But when you want that rhetorical parallelism and/or the Biblical allusion, that's when things get tricky. English phrasal verbs (i.e. verb+particle or verb+preposition lexical items) are more syntactically complex than simple verbs to start with, and pied piping is complicated even when it's not done out of a guilty feeling that you're not supposed to end sentences (or clauses, or phrases, or whatever the un-rule says) with prepositions, and moreso when passive constructions are involved. So when you're trying to build a semi-parallel construction that involves two different verbs that associate with two different prepositions that are meant to govern the same object, and one or both of them need to be pied-piped to heighten the parallelism (and the allusion), and the whole thing is shifted to the passive voice, then of course it's going to get screwed up more often than not!

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 22, 2015 @ 12:07 am

    Joe Fineman: But you can't omit that "to" before "which" or "whom" in a passive construction (though you can before an ordinary noun phrase), and you can't omit "him" from "him who" (though you can from "he who"). I think.

  10. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 22, 2015 @ 10:45 am

    GeorgeW: Harold Macmillan famously said 'there ain't gonna be any war', but people did question at the time whether this was correct, and it is actually quoted sometimes as '… no war'.

  11. Xmun said,

    March 22, 2015 @ 11:11 pm

    NB The "ain't" in "There ain't no free lunch" isn't an auxiliary but a main verb. The "ain't" in "there ain't gonna be any war" is indeed an auxiliary, and so also is "gonna".

    [(myl) This is true — but the placement of isn't in "Isn't there any free lunch?" is still called "subject-aux inversion", I think.]

    (I remember a lecturer in Modern Languages discoursing in the 1950s about the English auxiliaries "gonna" and "gotta".)

  12. Sandy Nicholson said,

    March 23, 2015 @ 5:02 am

    @myl I stand corrected on owed from. I can see that it’s out there (at least in some varieties of formal English). Despite the evidence, though, my brain isn’t quite ready to internalise it yet. :o)

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 23, 2015 @ 7:26 am

    GeorgeW: googling reveals plenty of "ain't any NOUN" constructions out there, which I suppose were mostly judged grammatical by those who produced them. Obviously the English varieties in which "ain't" is acceptable tend also to be those in which negative concord is acceptable, but I guess the question whether (and if so under what conditions) negative concord is not only acceptable but mandatory.

  14. DG said,

    March 23, 2015 @ 10:07 am

    Isn't the quotation from President John F. Kennedy (and not his son, John F. Kennedy, Jr.), "For of those to whom much is given, much is required"? Every source I can find gives it in that form.

  15. Gene Callahan said,

    March 24, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    "Monkey brains": shibboleth alert!

    There is no evidence that lizard brains or elephant brains or dolphin brains handle syntax better than we do, nor does invoking monkeys offer any explanation whatsoever of why we monkeys have trouble getting right a language that we, after all, developed.

    This is just invoking evolution to show that one is one of those people who is in the group who invokes evolution at the drop of a hat.

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