by Brian on February 12, 2004

I hadn’t noticed this before, but Mark Kleiman has on his website a fun collection of aphorisms he co-collated with David Chu-wen Hsia. I normally stay away from aphorisms because they remind me of Wittgenstein and anything that reminds me of Wittgenstein makes me irritated, but there’s some good stuff here. What I really wanted to comment on though was the following.

bq. Masculine pronouns, and “man” for “human being,” occur throughout. English needs neuter personal pronouns, but currently lacks them. We can’t do much about that now without great loss of force. (Those who doubt this sad fact are urged to try their hands at gender-neutralizing “Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.”) Our apologies to those offended.

That’s not the hardest challenge I’ve seen today. This isn’t a perfect translation into gender-neutral language, but it’s pretty close.

bq. No person has greater love than to lay down their life for their friends.

People who think ‘they’ is invariably a plural pronoun won’t like this, but they’re wrong for both etymological and ordinary language reasons.



rams 02.12.04 at 8:15 pm

As long as you’re permitting “they”, my ear would

Greater love hath no one than that they lay down their life for a friend.(The original was singular and to my ear that does sound stronger than plural.)


Vance Maverick 02.12.04 at 8:22 pm

Mark plays a somewhat unfair game here. The prose of the King James Bible isn’t just good — for English prose, it’s part of the definition of good, part of the frame of reference against which we read any prose at all. So any translation from Jacobean to another idiom will sound like a loss.

That said, we can point to some specific features of the original which could be duplicated in your version. For example, the focusing of attention on “this”, which is perhaps redundant but undeniably part of the magic of the original.


John Quiggin 02.12.04 at 8:27 pm

There’s also a slight cheat in using the archaic “hath” in a familiar quote to slide over the nonstandard nature of the grammatical construction. Brian’s version should not be compared with the original but with

“No man has greater love than this …”

I would use “No-one” rather than “No person”, and stick with “they” in the second clause.


Brian Weatherson 02.12.04 at 8:37 pm

Of course I should have used no one rather than no person. That sounds much better.


todd. 02.12.04 at 8:52 pm

I’m still not sold on ‘they.’ It was built into me in high school, and it simply sounds offensive at this point. My ear twitches.


nnyhav 02.12.04 at 10:51 pm

I, for one, welcome singular Roman numeric pronouns.


dipnut 02.12.04 at 10:58 pm

Never mind the clanging usage of “their”; your translation is nearly unintelligible apart from that.

“No person has greater hunger than to eat breakfast.”

“No one knows freedom better than to fly an airplane.”

See what I’m getting at? The infinitive form of any verb does not know freedom, or have hunger or love. Your usage is defensible*, barely, but it’s still lazy and mean.

* “[The infinitive form] functions as a substantive while retaining certain verbal characteristics…”


Brian Weatherson 02.13.04 at 4:52 am

Dipnut, I know the sentence I came up with is pretty non-standard, but so is the original. It’s not like “Greater love hath no one than this: that they lay down their life for their friend,” or a gender-specific version thereof, is exactly standard English.


Rich 02.13.04 at 3:13 pm

English does have a neuter personal pronoun pronoun – it’s “one”. Although “Greater love hath no-one than this: that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends” lacks a certain amount of poetry, it’s still correct and gender-non-specific.


Matt Weiner 02.13.04 at 4:12 pm

I think James Thurber nailed the problem with “one” as a neuter personal pronoun:
‘The chief objection to a consistent, or “cross-country” use of “one” is that it tends to make a sentence sound like a trombone solo – such as: “One knows one’s friends will help one if one is in trouble, or at least one trusts one’s friends will help one.” Even though this is correct, to the point of being impeccable, there is no excuse for it. The “one” enthusiast should actually take up the trombone and let it go at that.’
Read, as they say, the whole thing.


Keith Gaughan 02.13.04 at 5:21 pm

Personally, I prefer the use of ‘one’ and infinitives, as follows: “Greater love hath none than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends.” But even then, I’ve never myself had a problem with somebody using ‘they’ as an epiciene pronoun.


Anne C. 02.13.04 at 9:22 pm

I like to use “she” and “her” in a universal sense. Male pronouns got used for so long, so now we can switch. And it’s more pleasing than “he or she” or “they.”


John Avelis Jr. 02.14.04 at 12:20 pm

Take, for instance, the quote by the immortal Jack Nicholson:

“People who talk in metaphors should shampoo my crotch.”

….perfect gender neutrality.

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