If You Love Someone, Set Them Free. If They Come Back They’re Yours

Richard Bach? Jess Lair? Anonymous student? Sting? Peter Max? Chantal Sicile?

Dear Quote Investigator: On his first solo album in 1985 the musician Sting released a song called:

If You Love Somebody Set Them Free

Recently, I heard more elaborate quotations that included the above statement:

If you love something, let it go. If it returns, it’s yours; if it doesn’t, it wasn’t.
If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were.

The statement immediately above was attributed to Richard Bach who wrote the enormously popular inspirationally work “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” in the 1970s. But I cannot find this saying in his novels. Could you tell me where this expression came from?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantiation that Richard Bach created or used the phrases above.

The earliest known evidence for a version of this saying appeared in a book titled “I Ain’t Much Baby—But I’m All I’ve Got” by Jess Lair that was privately published in 1969. Lair was a teacher, and he asked his students to create small writing samples. For each class meeting a student was supposed to write “some comment, question or feeling” on a three inch by five inch card and place it on a table in the front of the classroom. Lair read the short texts and made comments at the beginning of the class. The following was written on one card [JL69] [JL72]:

If you want something very, very badly, let it go free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever.  If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.

Lair stated that about half of the cards were unsigned, and he did not identify the person who turned in the expression above. Here are three other examples from junior and senior students:

1. I heard a very profound statement last night. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten it.
2. No guts—no glory.
3. Laughter is the song of the angels.

Lair did not require the words to be original, and he did not request attributions. So the student may have gathered the quotation of interest from another unknown person.

Top quotation expert Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, obtained a copy of the 1969 book recently and verified the presence of the passage. Lair published multiple editions of his book, and in the past a 1974 edition was the earliest known and verified copy [JLYQ] [JLQV].

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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