Superannuated Syntax: “Would” means what again?

I’ve heard reports of headlines and news articles referring to HRH Prince William Arthur Philip Louis, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, Baron Carrickfergus, Royal Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Personal Aide-de-Camp to Her Majesty the Queen as “the man who would be king.”

Perhaps that is accurate, if indeed HRH wants to be king. But that’s not usually what the writers intend. They intend to say “the man who will be king,” but they love the sound of Kipling’s phrasing so they use it.


“The man who would be king” means “the man who wishes or wants to be king.” It’s got nothing to do with what will or won’t happen at some future point.

It’s tricky, I know. One can say “He would be king if Prince Charles were to die or abdicate.” And one would be correct to say so, because if that were to happen, William would indeed become king (I’m oversimplifying here, vastly, but play along and be nice, all right? Thanks).

“Would” meaning “wish” is the second entry for “would” in my thrift-store copy of Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (hey, it was $1!). In my Encarta World English Dictionary, it’s the final entry, listed as “would that” and said to be used most often in cases where one wishes something is “not expected to be fulfilled.” The example used is “Would that we had never met.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says “Would is also used as a finite verb to express a wish. It is used with or without a subject.” I’m happy to report that two of the three examples given are dated from the 1980s. The third is from a 1936 letter penned by James Thurber: “I would God you two were the tender apple blossom and could be shipped here in a sachet bag.”

You may have seen it used in constructions like “would that it were so,” or “would that I could take your place.” It means “if only” or “I wish” used in that way.

Just for grins I pulled out my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (also a thrift-sale find!), and it has this to say: “With the, denoting desire or intention in contrast to duty or necessity 1753.” That date represents the earliest known written usage of that meaning, according to this publication. (That information is likely outdated, but this is the book I have. Mine’s copyright 1973, but the first printing was 1933.) Sadly, there’s no example given of this would + the usage, so we’re left to our own devices. I’m familiar with would + that + the.

So. When you see someone calling HRH Prince William “the man who would be king,” you can feel smug in knowing that’s not really what they meant to say. I’m happy to see at least one biographer got it right. 

Superannuated Syntax: Say what, now?

In the last week or so I’ve had conversations around the ‘net with people about syntax, word choices, and usages that confound many “modern” readers and writers and speakers of English (native and otherwise). One such usage is “suffer” in the sense of “allow.” “Suffer the children” does not mean “the children are suffering.” It means “allow the children” (“suffer the children, and forbid them not, to come unto me,” in context as attributed to Christ in Matthew 9:14, KJV). Anyone who says otherwise has fallen victim to superannuated syntax.

I deliberately avoided calling this series “Outmoded Syntax” because that’s associated with programming, and this ain’t that.

In any case, this series is meant to talk about phrasing we don’t hear much anymore and wording that confuses “modern readers,” and maybe even to provide some tips and suggestions for strengthening historical fiction by using appropriately outdated choices (in appropriate ways, of course). I’ve not yet decided on that part of it, but know I’m thinking about it.

To kick things off, here’s a link to a post at from 2012 about the language of Christmas carols. Chock full of superannuated syntax/usage/vocabulary!

G+ Collections News!

If you follow me over at G+, you might know that I’ve recently embraced the new Collections feature.

I’m gradually moving all of my relevant posts into appropriate collections, like “Broad Daylight Editing,” “GUMmy Stuff: Grammar, Usage, Mechanics,” and “Why I Edit (And Why You Might Hire Me).” Most of what I post over there has some relevance to some facet of editing, and I’m finding I have a LOT of content to sort through. It’s a good thing I made liberal use of hashtags like #GramrgednBasics, #MorningMechanics, and #RealEditorsProofBetter; that makes it pretty simple to find what I need to move.

I also have a GRAMMARGEDDON! collection, just for posts from here. I always posted a link there when I put up a new post here; now, that’s all automated thanks to Jetpack (the WP plugin) for self-hosted sites. Once I post this, I can go over there, find the post, and reshare it to the appropriate collection. Easy peasy, as they say.

I hope that folks will follow me here AND at G+. A lot of what I post there are one-offs that wouldn’t make good blog posts, to my way of thinking, because they’re not deep enough. Which reminds me: I need to create a #HomophoneHell collection! ::cackles::

All right, then. I’ve told you what I needed to tell you. I’ll see you around, I’m sure.


Agree to Disagree? Or: How Many Is (Are?) a Team?

It’s been a while since I wrote about subject-verb agreement. In fact, it’s been close to a year. I’ll leave the searching to you, though. I don’t want to take away all the fun.

The concept of agreement means that we want the same “number” (singular or plural) for our subject and our verb. When they don’t agree, we notice. Not because we know some arcane rule. Because it just sounds wrong. Very, painfully, obviously wrong. Most of the time, anyway.

The cat were lazing in the window.

How many cats? Only one? Then it’s “was lazing,” not “were.” Two or more? Then we need to fix “cats” and leave “were” alone. That one’s pretty clear, and a simple contextual reading will probably suffice for clarification. (This bypasses the rules for the subjunctive mood in English, which does weird things with number and tense, like “God save the queen” and “if I were you.” This isn’t that, and I’m not going there right now.)

But look at this one:

The A-group, as he called his team, were clocking out at the end of the shift.

On a quick read that sounds all right, maybe. Depends on how you like your collective nouns. They swing, you know. Singular or plural, either way, depending on the concept of “notional concord.” It also matters whether you’re an AmE or BrE speaker/writer. In the United States, we tend to treat “team” as a singular entity, like we do with companies. “Apple is announcing a new gadget.” “The team is entering the stadium.” (BrE speakers/writers tend to say “Apple are announcing a new gadget.” Looks weird to me, but it’s their style.) That matters, because the audience brings its expectations along to your work. What are your readers likely to expect? Go with what they’ll think. It’ll save you hassle in the long run (fewer 1-star reviews from grammar pedants worse than me).

If you’re an AmE speaker/writer, I suggest going with “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out. . . .” No one will argue with you, I don’t think. To check the flow and sense of it, remove what’s set off by the commas. “The A-group was clocking out.” If that sounds right to you in that form, it’s still right when you put that phrase back in: “The A-group, as he called his team, was clocking out.”

Certainly one could argue that a team comprises several members, and therefore could be considered as plural. That’s notional concord at work. What sounds right to you? What makes sense to you? After you figure that out, then ask the same about your audience. What will make them scream? Pick the other one.



More thoughts on “singular they”

This time, I have backup from none other than John McWhorter, linguist, author, and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. That backup comes from his book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

Early on in Chapter Two (“A Lesson from the Celtic Impact: The ‘Grammatical Errors’ Epidemic Is a Hoax”), he discusses the bias against the usage of “they” to mean “one of an indeterminate gender.” Of course, he points out its appearance as early as the 15th century in the phrase “Iche mon in thayre degree” (each man in their degree) in the Sir Amadace tale. Then he names Shakespeare, of course, and Thackeray, too (“A person can’t help their birth,” from Vanity Fair). And yes, I hear the grumblings and see the head-shakings that “just because the Bard did it doesn’t make it right.” Well . . . I disagree, you see. He did it because it was being done. All over. By many, many people. The 19th-century grammarians and their blind insistence on making English conform to Latin grammar took issue, but that’s because . . . well, they meant well, but didn’t understand much about linguistics back then. Continue reading

One more just for fun.

I tweaked one setting. Now let’s see if it did what I think it’ll do.

Move along. Nothin’ ta see here.

This is a test (Take 2)

. . . of the Jetpack Publicize system. Had this been an actual blog post, you would have received scintillating discussion about GUM issues, perhaps with a delightful amuse bouche to top it all off.


But it’s not. It’s a test post, so there’s none of that.  I’m hoping to see this on G+, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Twitter shortly after I push the button.



This is a test

. . .  of the Jetpack Publish system. Had this been an actual post, you would have received delightful and amusing discussion of GUM issues, perhaps with an amuse bouche to top it all off.


But it’s not. It’s only a test. So . . . I’m hoping you’ll be seeing this on Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and G+ after I push the button.



More -Nyms: Bacro- and Retro-

“Hey, we need something called the PATRIOT Act. That’s patriotic. We need to come up with a name that uses those letters.”

“We need to add USA to that, to be really clear that it’s American!”

And thus we have the USA PATRIOT Act: The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. Not that anyone really remembers that wording. Most of us don’t even remember that “USA” is part of the name. We just call it the PATRIOT Act. (Not the best naming device, in my opinion, if folks can’t remember the actual words . . .) Continue reading

Comma Karma

Commas are the bane of many writers, but they’re more useful than you might realize.

Time was, everyone was taught the niceties of comma usage and the way proper usage helps readers understand the author’s intentions. That time seems to have passed, though, so I’m stepping in.

What’s the difference between the meanings of these two phrases?

Kim’s husband Steve

Kim’s husband, Steve Continue reading