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For the idiomatic phrase, "There, but for the grace of God, go I", I take it literally to mean "There I would go, but because of God's grace, I don't."

If I'm correct, I'm confused as to where this implied negation "I don't" comes from.

Another example is given here (which incidentally explains the above phrase). I've added the implied negation in square brackets. "I too, like someone seen to have suffered misfortune, might have suffered a similar fate, but for God's mercy [I didn't]."

Is there always implied negation association with "but"? I have to say I have not seen this kind of usage very often. If there are better examples, or if this kind of implication is in fact explicitly stated somewhere, I'd be happy to hear it.

  • It comes from but here having the meaning of except. It means "I would go there except God's grace prevented me." – deadrat Nov 5 '15 at 7:40
  • @deadrat I think, more specifically, it is the term but for that conveys negativity. It would have been a pleasant outing 'but for' the weather. However you can achieve similar effects with other prepositions. Where do people put milk in their tea, 'but in' Britain. It has the effect of excluding everywhere else. Where can you see such behaviour 'but at' public demonstrations. – WS2 Nov 5 '15 at 8:05
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    @WS2 I think "implied negation" is misleading. But implies a partition. In the OP's example it's between a hypothetical outcome in a world without God's grace and the actual outcome in the world with. In your example, it's between places where people actually like tea and Britain, where they prefer an Orange Pekoe milkshake. – deadrat Nov 5 '15 at 8:12
  • @deadrat I agree - except about the tea! – WS2 Nov 5 '15 at 8:42
  • You ask if there is always an implied negation. In English, exceptions abound, and it's rare to have "always" anything – but I digress. – J.R. Nov 5 '15 at 9:41
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This phrase (NB "but for", not just 'but') is used in both indicative and subjunctive moods (http://grammarist.com/grammar/english-moods/).

The street is/was deserted but for an occasional car. (i.e. the street is/was not deserted because there are/were occasional cars). In this usage it is common to use other phrases - 'apart from, aside from ...' rather than 'but for'.

There but for the grace of God go I. (i.e. I would not be here were it not for ('except for') the grace of God).

There is always an implied alternative ('implied negation') when this phrase is used. It is used in tort law linking the tort and the damages (aka causation), which are stated as: "but for" the defendant's negligence, the plaintiff would not have been injured. http://www.duhaime.org/LegalDictionary/B/ButFor.aspx

  • Dan, thanks for this. Can your explanation for the "grace of God" phrase be stated more simply as "I would be there were it not for ('except for') the grace of God"? I just removed the first negation as it confused me the first time round. – LCW Nov 5 '15 at 10:29
  • Yes it can (although your explication -There I would go, but because of God's grace, I don't is idiomatic and easy to understand. – Dan Nov 5 '15 at 11:48

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