There is a phrase in a book I am translating.

"There but for the grace of God goes God".

I googled this phrase and find the original version of this. Which is "there but for the grace of God go I". I understand the meaning behind this second phrase. What I understand is: When someone tries to remark that the only reason behind the success he/she gained was God's grace.

But the problem is, I cannot analyse this sentence grammatically because English is not my mother tounge. And after all I shoul be able to understand the second sentence semantically to replace the last part with "God" then understand the first phrase.

P.S. The first phrase is taken from: 1985 by Anthony Burgess.

The passage in which the first phrase appears:

-But his response was to write a terrifying novel in which English Socialism is far worse than either the Nazi or the Russian variety. Why? What went wrong?

-I don't know. The English Socialism that came to power in 1945 had nothing of Ingsoc about it. There was power-seeking there, of course, as well as corruption, inefficiency, a love of control for its own sake, a dour pleasure in prolonging 'austerity'. British radicalism has never been able to rid itself of its Puritan origins, and perhaps it hasn't wished to. A typical figure of the post-War Socialist Government was Sir Stafford Cripps, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was a sour devotee of progress without pleasure, of whom Winston Churchill once said: 'There but for the grace of God goes God.' He was treated by the common people as something of a joke. Potato crisps were metathesized in his honour, and men in pubs would ask for a packet of 'Sir Staffs'.

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    Not 'the only reason for my success', but 'the only reason I haven't suffered the same misfortune or punishment as that person'. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/there_but_for_the_grace_of_God_go_I Aug 10 at 12:11
  • I understand the meaning. But I want to deconstruct the sentence itself. As in: What is "There but", what is "go I"? Is there any other form we can rewrite this sentence so I can understand?
    – Abw
    Aug 10 at 12:18
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    "There" - to execution, poverty or whatever - is where I might be going if not for the grace of God. Aug 10 at 12:24
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    Another thought. Catholics and (most?) Protestants believe that grace is freely given by God. A person cannot do anything to earn grace. So "there but for the grace of God..." implies that the speaker doesn't owe his good fortune to anything he did. Aug 10 at 23:51
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    @Abw: You say "I understand the meaning." But you don't. Kate Bunting's comment is absolutely right.
    – TonyK
    Aug 12 at 0:49

5 Answers 5


There's a lot of old grammar here. First there is a "locative inversion". With a location fronted in the sentence, the verb and subject invert:

The man sat under the tree → Under the tree sat the man.

In modern English, this is rare and formal, and not generally used with pronouns, but in older forms of English it was more common (it is actually a relic of a Germanic syntax)

This explains "There ... go I", "There" is a locative word (even if used metaphorically). The verb and subject are inverted.

The phrase "but for the grace of God" uses an older sense of "but" as a preposition giving the sense of "except". So the meaning could be rendered:

I would (have to) go there, except I am in God's grace.

It's used when commenting on someone who has been unfortunate, and comparing one's own fortune.

The original is said to be by St Francis, and versions of it exist in other European languages.

The joke by Churchill is partly that "I" (ie Churchill) would never be like Sir Stafford, even if unlucky. And that God chooses to allow enjoyment, and would not, therefore, be a puritan.

  • 1
    A similar inversion, which is very common and not necessarily formal in modern English, is with quotations. For example, in the sentence "'There but for the grace of God goes God', said Churchill", the verb is "said", the subject is "Churchill" and the object is the quotation; so the word order is object-verb-subject. Apparently this is called quotative inversion.
    – kaya3
    Aug 11 at 21:05

“there but for the grace of God go I”

The meaning is simply:

  • If I had been less lucky, that would be me.

What’s difficult is the use of “but” and the reversal of “I” and “go”. Both of these are poetic affectations.

to go

Despite the funny word-order, this is the normal use of “to go”, meaning to travel or walk. The simplest form of of the main clause is:

  • I go there

In the context “there” is “on that person’s path”. The figurative meaning is that “my life would be like theirs”.

As an aside, the construction “There goes X” does have an idiomatic meaning in English to suggest the loss of the thing, but in this phrase that is not what is being said.

but for reason

The second unusual piece of this saying is an unusual use of “but” as a conjunction. Again, this is slightly old-fashioned and poetic, (we would normally use “except”). This is a way of saying that what is said in the rest of the sentence would be true if the “but for” part was not.

These sentences have exactly the same meaning:

  • “The firemen would have died but for the skill of the ladder operator.”
  • “The firemen would have died except for the skill of the ladder operator.” [this is the more common version in modern English]
  • “The firemen would have died if not for the skill of the ladder operator.” [another way to say this, quite common]
  • “The firemen would have died if it wasn’t for the skill of the ladder operator.” [variation of the above, using dummy-it, common in speech]

... and, using a different structure, but keeping the same meaning:

  • “The firemen did not die because of the skill of the ladder operator”
  • “The skill of the ladder operator meant that the firemen did not die” [places the reason at the head of the sentence]

So, our phrase has these similar versions:

  • “There I go but for the grace of God”
  • “I am not going there because of the grace of God”
  • “The grace of God meant that I am not going there”

“the grace of God”

In theology, there are many different and conflicting definitions of what constitutes “the grace of God”. However, in this idiom, the phrase “the grace of God” means nothing more or less than “good luck” or “chance”.

If you want to know what exact religious background Churchill was speaking from, he was an adherent of the Church of England, but it’s not really relevant to the general meaning of the phrase.

Churchill’s version

What Churchill is saying is that if God were not so lucky, he would end up like Sir Stafford Cripps.

Not exactly Churchill’s cleverest quip, but that is what it means.

  • 4
    Also "if not for [X]." That's even more casual than "except for [X]." That's the one I'd normally use and it seems fairly common. You might add "The firemen would have died if not for the skill of the ladder operator." Aug 10 at 17:35
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    Don't forget the Gilligan's Island lyric: "If not for the courage of the fearless crew The Minnow would be lost"
    – Barmar
    Aug 11 at 14:33
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    It also means: Sir Staffs has none of God's grace. I don't know what Mr. Churchill's cleverest quip is, but this is very clever, leaving a great deal of interpretation on various fronts, and any one of them is a jab.
    – Conrado
    Aug 11 at 18:54
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    The meaning of "goes God" is that Churchill is suggesting Cripps considers himself a god, able to divine right and wrong, see the future, and dispense justice infallibly. ... Churchill here is comparing Cripps to a fallen God - if God were not perfect (by his own grace) he might have ended up like Cripps. In other words, he is comparing Cripps to the fallen angel Satan, but without saying so explicitly.
    – Ben
    Aug 11 at 22:56
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    The grace of God is not the same as good luck. I can't fix this, because there's already an edit pending, but this explanation does not show the original phrase's real meaning. Saying "There but for the grace of God go I" in response to, for example, someone being convicted of murder does not mean "I'm lucky that I wasn't put in a situation that would lead me to commit murder." It means "This person committed a terrible crime, but I need to remember that without God's intervention, I could have done the same." To a non-religious person they may sound similar, but the intent is very different.
    – Someone
    Aug 12 at 4:36

There, but for the grace of God, goes God.

This quote about Stafford Cripps means that Stafford Cripps thought he was an extremely important and Christian man: if it was up to Cripps, he would have been God himself. But, of course, according to this quote, God is God and would never permit this to happen. This is the natural interpretation of this joke. It is funny because in the more well-known saying "there, but for the grace of God, go I" the speaker is being very humble and meek. In Churchill's version, the meek and humble "I" has unexpectedly been replaced by "God"!

The person being interviewed in the book, who is actually Anthony Burgess himself, is interpreting the phrase slightly differently (he is putting a different spin on it): if Cripps's vision of Christianity was correct, God would be mean, joyless and puritanical, but luckily God is not like that. This, however, is probably not Churchill's main intended meaning.

The grammar

The sentence uses subject-dependent inversion, where the locative word there has swapped places with the subject, I. This construction puts the focus of the sentence on the last word.

The strings:

  • There goes [X]
  • Here comes [X]

... are common, idiomatic ways to draw the listener's attention to somebody who is coming or going. They are unusual because they use the present simple forms come and go and not the continuous forms is coming or is going, which we might expect to see. The verb go could easily be replaced by the verb be, with the same meaning. Both of these sayings effectively mean:

  • There's [X].
  • Here's [X].

There is no really sense of somebody travelling anywhere. Note that the word but in this sentence is the preposition meaning except, not the conjunction.

The main clause in the sentence literally means: "I am going there", where the word there refers to a place indicated by the speaker or the context. It's not the use of there to refer to a previously mentioned place. As mentioned, however, the sense of actually going somewhere has been bleached out of this construction. It means something more like "There am I" or "I am there", with the focus on the word I.

Of course, the larger sentence does not mean this because of the Adjunct but for the grace of God, meaning "except for the grace of God". The word "grace" here, refers to the kindness or lovingness of God.

From this we get the interpretation "It could have been me in that situation, if God hadn't been kind to me".


As for "go I", this is normal in Norwegian and not a formal way. The connections and similarities with older English and Norwegian are many and strong, so this may also have been a normal way to express it in older English.


One word replaced, God with you:

... "There but for the grace of you go I" ... is the ending line in "Kathy's song" by the american songwriter Paul Simon. The content of the song is that he feels lost and sad while away from Kathy. I believe that the ending line means that he is still upheld from total despair and misfortune by the fact that she loves him too and that's what gives him hope and strength to continue.

The song and lyrics are quiet and otherwise simple phrased:


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