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.

Wrongly.

“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 (That information is likely outdated, but this is the book I have.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. 

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