The Grammarphobia Blog

Never let me go

Q: A recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the firing of a whistle-blower in 2008 reported that Lehman Brothers had said “it let go Mr. Lee … as part of a broader downsizing.” I prefer “let Mr. Lee go.” Care to comment?

A: The verbal phrase “let go” is very old, dating back to around the year 1300. It was first used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to mean “to allow to escape; to set at liberty; to lose one’s hold of; to relax (one’s hold); to drop (an anchor).”

In early usages, the two words were sometimes separated by an object, as in “leit paule … ga” (“let Paul … go,” c. 1375),  “lat the reynes gon” (“let the reins go,” c. 1384), and “we lete hym ga” (“we let him go,” 1440).

But just as often the two words were kept together, as in “Let go your capestan” (1530), “let goe everye Feasaunt and Partridge” (1581), and “let go the anchor” (1727).

And this trend has continued into modern times: “let go” is sometimes kept intact and sometimes divided. 

The phrase was first used in the sense of releasing or dismissing someone from a job in 1871, the OED says. And in the OED citations, as you can see, the words are sometimes separated and sometimes not. 

1871: “If he decides to let you go….”

1924: “yard workers are let go.”

1985: “We cut costs and let go of employees.”

1991: “Clive tells me he’s had to let you go.”

2005: ”Howard had let go of Monique, the cleaner, describing her as an expense they could no longer afford.”

Notice, however, that when the object follows the verbal phrase, the preposition “of” is normally used (“let go of employees” … “let go of Monique”).

Perhaps the construction seems simply too abrupt and unnatural without the preposition (“let go employees” … “let go Monique”).

There’s very little on this particular verb phrase in the grammatical sources we’ve consulted. But our feeling is that the usage isn’t idiomatic in the Wall Street Journal’s article about the dismissal of Matthew Lee, a senior vice president.

As far as we can tell, the typical idiomatic constructions are “Let Mr. Lee go” or “let go of Mr. Lee” or “Mr. Lee was let go,” not as the Journal writer said, “let go Mr. Lee.” (Elsewhere in the article, the writer uses the more idiomatic “was let go” version.)

In another use of “let go,” meaning “to neglect one’s appearance, personal habits, etc.,” the two words are nearly always divided by a reflexive pronoun, as in these citations from the OED.

1960, from Woman magazine: “The first step towards ‘letting yourself go.’ ”

1970, from Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch: “She tries not ‘to let herself go,’ keeps young-looking.”

1971, from Ruth Rendell’s novel One Across, Two Down: “I wouldn’t want Ethel to think I’d let myself go.”

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