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"Ours is not to reason why, but to either do or die..."
Junior Member
What I do know is this...
Lord Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade contains the following:

"Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:"

But, what is commonly quoted is what I have posted in the subject line...

"Ours is not to reason why, but to either do or die..."

Does anyone know if this second quote is just the "evolution" of Tennyson's original quote, or did someone else actually adapt the exert from Tennyson's piece and is now known for the updated version???

Posts: 1 | Registered: 08-03-04Reply With QuoteReport This Post
Senior Member
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I think this would have generated a response by now if you had asked whether Tennyson was reworking an older adage rather than if someone else reworked his adage. I don't know the answer to either, but I can put in my two cents. These two lines are prime candidates to become an adage, and someone since Tennyson's time is likely to have, consciously or not, referred to it or recycled it. The problem with the memory of most of us, which is undisciplined, is that it can be spotty and vague. What I mean is, if you don't make a conscious effort at remembering something as it appears, more often than not you will remember only pieces of it, the rest only vaguely. And when you try to fill in the blanks, your mind may be satisfied with something vaguely familiar or that seems to correctly fit. And even the most disciplined minds are still prone to error: manuscripts meticulously copied by monks in the middle ages, for example, are full of misspellings, word repetition, replacement of the harder, original word with a synonym that's easier to recall, and on and on. The point is that, like in the rumor game you might have played in elementary school, the original statement is prone to all sorts of corruptions and modifications, many unconsious. It seems likely, therefore, that your version of Tennyson's lines, which only switches around personal pronouns, is only what you call an "evolution" of the lines. It can more accurately be called a misquotation.

Dives sum, si non reddo eis quibus debeo.
--Plautus, Curculio 377

Posts: 1221 | Location: North Carolina | Registered: 03-15-01Reply With QuoteReport This Post
Administrator (retired)
Quoteland Potentate
Picture of thenostromo
posted Hide Post
Found this statement, but couldn't find anything more:
Expression do or die is attested from 1621.

Those "incorrect apostrophes" are mentioned here:
Fascinating sale of manuscripts at Sothebys London
There was in the article in The Times an interesting photograph of an annotated manuscript of The Charge of the Light Brigade. This must have been an early version from the printers. You can see where Tennyson has crossed out "someone has blundered" which was considered too controversial as it was implying that someone in the British Army had made a mistake. I think he put it back in a later revison. You can also see where he has handwritten in some new lines, the famous:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:

Interestingly, the handwritten addition doesn't have the incorrect apostrophe which is always in any published version of the poem - presumably a typographical error at the printers.

The charge was at Balaclava, near Sebastopol, on Oct. 25, 1854; 272 of the 673 Brigade members were killed or wounded in the charge because of a misunderstood order.

A very thorough history of the Charge of the Light Brigade can be read at

"Then arose that do-or-die expression, that maniacal maelstrom of sound; that penetrating, rasping, shrieking, blood-curling noise that could be heard for miles..."
Keller Anderson of Kentucky’s 'Orphan' Brigade

Wha wad be a traitor knave?
Wha wad fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee.
Wha for Scotland's king and law
Freedom's sword would strongly draw?
Free man stand, or free man fa'
Let us do, or die.
~ Robert Burns
"This world famous Ode was composed in September 1793"

[This message was edited by thenostromo on 08-08-04 at 02:21 PM.]
Posts: 17440 | Location: Wisconsin | Registered: 06-07-00Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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