A difficult question of usage

(Note, September 30, 7:00 a.m.: Numerous readers’ comments have just been posted in this entry. If you feel that the issue is too difficult to bother with, it is satisfactorily resolved here.)

Stan S. writes:

You write: “I wouldn’t be surprised if within five years some of the writers at National Review are sporting tattoos.”

What you want to say is, “I shouldn’t be surprised.” “I wouldn’t be surprised” is either a blunder or means you would scrupulously consider every possibility so as not to be caught by surprise.

If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to produce one instance of “I wouldn’t be surprised” in all of Dickens or Austen.

These days the vast majority of passive constructions with “will” or “would” in the first person are mistakes.

LA replies:

I recognize that your corrected version of my phrase sounds the way proper authors once wrote.

However, I confess that I do not know and do not understand the fine points of the correct usages of “should” and “would.” It’s one of those grammar and usage issues that have always floated at the edge of my consciousness but that I never deliberately focused on and mastered. I need to do so.

LA continues:

For example, I am aware that the traditional, proper form is, “I should like to see Mr. Smith,” not “I would like to see Mr. Smith.” But (1) I don’t understand why that is the rule, and (2) no one has used that form for at least fifty years. You see it in old novels.

LA adds (September 30):

Including American novels. In The Fountainhead (1943), the 22-year-old Howard Roark, who has just been kicked out of architecture school (and who never attended college), goes to the office of the great but ruined architect Henry Cameron in New York to get a job. He walks into the office and says to the secretary, “I should like to see Mr. Cameron.”

Stan S. writes:

The reason why “I would like” is wrong is that “would” already expresses the speaker’s volition when used in first person, making “would like” redundant. [LA replies: But then according to you, one should say to Mr. Smith’s secretary, “I would see Mr. Smith.” No one speaks that way.] Generally it is correct to say “I shall/should” whenever the volitional content of “will/would” is either redundant (so not “I would like” but “I should like”; not “I will be glad” but “I shall be glad; etc.) or contradictory (so not “I will have to” but “I shall have to,” etc.). This only applies to the first person.

Hope this helps.

By the way, you may be surprised but many writers still observe these rules. I have noticed that Theodore Dalrymple and John Derbyshire do it, just to name two.

LA replies:

I can’t say I understand this at all. I will have to read up on it. We had good grammar instruction when I was in school,—I remember with special fondness making syntactical “trees” of sentences in eighth grade—but I don’t remember studying this shall/will, should/would issue. If we did study it, it went right out of my head.

The two writers you mention were both educated in England, so evidently state schools in postwar Britain taught these things. I don’t know that the same is true for America; I don’t think it is.

September 30

Stan S. replies to LA:

The expression “I would see Mr. Smith” is, strictly speaking, correct and equivalent (more or less) to “I should like to see Mr. Smith.” In Shakespeare I’m sure you could find examples of “I would” used with the meaning that today’s syntax would render as “I wish to” or “I wish that.” But it seems that by no later than the mid-19th century idiom had definitely settled on “I should like” for expressing a polite request. This does not mean that “I would see Mr. Smith” is logically or grammatically wrong, though. If Mr. Smith’s secretary fails to understand you, rest assured the fault is entirely her own.

LA replies:

I don’t think even in Britain anyone would say, “I would see Mr. Smith,” with the meaning of, “I would like to see Mr. Smith.”

LA writes:

A reader sends a hyper concordance of English-speaking writers, I guess with the idea that we could look up how they use “would” and “should.”

Dan T. writes:

This reminds me of the “craven conditional”, the construct coined by William Safire (can’t remember in which book he discussed it) where the speaker “would hope that” something occurs instead of just “hoping” so.

LA replies:

Perhaps sometimes it’s craven, other times it’s just polite.

But here’s a similar issue, though off-topic. People will say, “I want to apologize for that,” or “I would like to apologize for that.” The funny thing is, they never get around to actually saying that they apologize, yet the “I want to apologize” or “I would like to apologize” is universally understood as meaning, “I apologize.”

When I became aware of that, I began avoiding the “I want to” or “I would like to” when I was apologizing for something and would simply use the indicative: “I apologize.” I think that if you intend to apologize for something, you ought to apologize and not just say that you want to apologize or that you would like to apologize.

However, based on our information from Stan, “I would like to apologize,” in addition to being craven, is incorrect. It should be, “I should like to apologize.” Or even, “I would apologize.” Talk about craven!

William H. writes:

I am just a native English speaker, not an academician. With that put down, here is my understanding of the difference between the two expressions.

“I would not be surprised.”

The word “would” is expressing an expectation on the part of the speaker. Inherent in the expression is an expectation. He expects that he is not going to be surprised. There is a sense of probability or some degree of uncertainty about whether or not the speaker is going to be surprised. Therefore, I understand the expression to say : I do not expect to be surprised.

“I should not be surprised.”

The word “should” is expressing an obligation of the part of the speaker. It seems to be a more forceful word. Inherent in this expression is a sense of certainty, not a probability of expectation as in the word “would.” The speaker ought not be surprised, and, if surprised, then he has failed not to be surprised, as he is obligated not to be surprised. Therefore, I understand this expression to say: I ought not be surprised.

I am open to being corrected.

Terry Morris writes:

I’ve looked back at this four or five times because it intrigues me, yet I’m not quite understanding it, so I’ll ask:

(1) It’s incorrect to say “I wouldn’t be surprised if … ” because in stating it that way the speaker or author is essentially predicting a future event when he does not intend to predict a future event? Is that what Stan is trying to convey?

(2) I’m assuming that variations on the phrase are also incorrect? As in “It would not surprise me if … ” for the same reason?

Geoffrey in Connecticut writes:

Who best to consult on the issue than H.W. Fowler?

This article is all about shall and will, and by extension should and would.

Appended below is the section on conditional mood.

Should be a piece of cake right?

Would that it were.

Seems that a lot of well known and well respected writers have been just as confused over the years.

LA replies:

The section of Fowler sent by Geoffrey is too long and too difficult to post; in fact, on first glance, it looks incomprehensible. I will just post the first paragraph of the Fowler chapter, in which he acknowledges the difficulty of the issue:

Chapter II. Syntax

IT is unfortunate that the idiomatic use, while it comes by nature to southern Englishmen (who will find most of this section superfluous), is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it; and for them the section is in danger of being useless. In apology for the length of these remarks it must be said that the short and simple directions often given are worse than useless. The observant reader soon loses faith in them from their constant failure to take him right; and the unobservant is the victim of false security.

Alex A. writes from England:

Correct English usage of “would” and “should,” is, narrowly speaking, as your correspondent Stan S. maintains.

But even Fowler’s Modern English Usage, concedes that the English idiom as described in the Oxford English Dictionary has never been submissively followed by Scottish and Irish writers, and especially not by American writers. Fowler goes on to allow that insistence on the rules laid down in the OED (about the admittedly useful distinctions between “would” and “should” and “shall” and “will”) may before long have to be classed as insular pedantry.

Your comment that John Derbyshire and Theodore Dalrymple follow these rules carefully because they were educated in post-war England and the same rules aren’t so closely observed by good writers educated in America, is a summary of what Fowler understood to be the case.

LA replies:

Ah, thank you. I’m off the hook.

Also, I like that phrase, “insular pedantry.” I’ll have to look for an opportunity to use it some time.

Anita K. writes:

In all the fuss about would and should,

(and by the way I’d say your first choice of “wouldn’t be surprised” was just fine)

it seems no one has noticed that your sentence,

“I wouldn’t be surprised if within five years some of the writers at National Review are sporting tattoos,”

should be:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if within five years some of the writers at National Review were sporting tattoos.”

LA replies:

Hmm. That’s a grey area I’m not sure of. On one hand, I consistently use “were” in the present subjunctive (or is it the conditional?): “If he were a serious candidate, he would do such and such,” whereas most people today say, “If he was a serious candidate, he would do such and such,” which to me is incorrect.

But in this instance I was speaking of the future, so maybe the “were,” which carries the quality of the past, just didn’t feel right. In any case, after weighing them, I feel that my version of the sentence is better than yours, but I can’t explain why. Perhaps it’s the difference between formal speech and conversational speech. Your version feels too formal to me. Or maybe it’s that the subjunctive (a state of possibility) is not what I intended here, but the indicative (a state of actuality). I am saying that do expect that some of them will be sporting tattoos.

Yes, that’s my answer. I had to work my way to it.

Terry Morris writes:

I was secretly hoping that the issue would be resolved in favor of the should, instead of the would rendition, because the former sounds to me so much more, ahem, sophisticated.

Robert S. writes:

There’s a good joke related to that usage issue (not exactly that one, but a similar one).

A foreign tourist was swimming in an English lake. Taken by cramps, he began to sink. He called out for help: “Attention! Attention! I will drown and no one shall save me!” Many people were within earshot, but, being well-brought up Englishmen and women, they honored his wishes and permitted him to drown.

Googling “I will drown and no one shall save me” brings up a number of discussions of this, such as this.

LA replies:

That’s really funny.

Stan S. writes:

I will add that, though these rules may have largely fallen into desuetude over the last 40 years (the same time that grammar has largely ceased to be taught), they had been observed by most good writers, even in America, for much longer than that, and retain obvious importance for readers of English literature seeking a close understanding of what they read.

There’s an analogous circumstance which is frequently commented on, of words that for the last 40 to 50 years have been losing their long-accepted meanings by accumulated misuse. For example, modern writers will use “presently” under the delusion that it means the same thing as “at present.” A person grown up on this sloppy kind of English is in danger from all kinds of minor misapprehensions when reading older books.

The rules for shall/will are no doubt complicated, but they are in my opinion easier to learn than the Fowlers make them out to be—at least when one restricts one’s attention to the essentials and disregard the optional refinements and arguable points. One might begin, without any risk of being misunderstood, by saying “I shall” in the first person. What possible reason not to do it?

Stan continues:

When writing a “future conditional” you have several options, some more idiomatic, some more formal and some archaic:

(1) “if they are sporting tattoos.”

(2) “if they should be sporting tattoos.”

(3) “if they shall be sporting tattoos.”

(4) “if they will be sporting tatooos.”

(5) “if they would be sporting tattoos.”

(1) and (2) are irreproachable as far as I can tell. If there is any difference between them, (2) suggests somewhat greater doubt. (3) is archaic but formally correct. (4) and (5) have meanings somewhat different from that of the others: they are equivalent or nearly equivalent to “if they choose/accept to have tattoos.”

I’m not sure about Anita’s suggestion, “if they were sporting tattoos.” I’m inclined to say it is also correct, even though were is a so-called present subjunctive, because the time is somewhat “fuzzy” when subjunctives are involved.

By the way, I’m glad Anita K. brought up this question, because in a conditional if-clause the auxiliaries will, would, should, function very much like they do in an ordinary main clause in the first person when the traditonal rules are observed.

Of course what I meant to say is that in a conditonal if-clause the auxiliaries will, would, should, function very much as they do in an ordinary main clause in the first person, etc.

Anita K. writes:

Upon thinking again about subjunctive versus conditional, perhaps it’s conditional…. I’ve just checked a couple of websites on that tense, but it has to be were. One can say:

“I won’t be surprised if they are … ” but one should say:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were … “

I do think that’s how it’s supposed to go.

William H. writes:

Regarding the use of the predicate “are sporting tattoos,” it now appears to me that it should be in the future subjunctive mood. Whenever a subordinate clause begins with “if”, it requires the verb to be in the subjunctive mood.

Main clause: I would not be surprised …

Subordinate clause: if within five years some of the writers at the National Review are sporting tattoos.

When the main clause describes a present condition, the verb in the subordinate clause takes the past subjunctive mood.

Example: I would do it now if I were there.

When the main clause describes a past condition, the verb in the subordinate clause takes the past perfect (or pluperfect) subjunctive mood.

Example: I would have done it yesterday if I had known about it.

When the subordinate clause refers to a possible future condition, as is the case in your sentence, the verb in the subordinate clause takes the future subjunctive mood.

Example: I would be surprised if within five years the gambler were to win a million dollars.

It is my humble conclusion that the sentence, after further thinking on my part, should read as follows:

I would not be surprised if within five years some of the writers at the National Review were to sport tattoos.

October 1

James P. writes:

Stan S. writes:

There’s an analogous circumstance which is frequently commented on, of words that for the last 40 to 50 years have been losing their long-accepted meanings by accumulated misuse. For example, modern writers will use “presently” under the delusion that it means the same thing as “at present.”

This reminds me of one of my pet peeves—people who use “momentarily” to mean “in a moment” rather than “for a moment.”

LA replies:

I think that’s happened and is not going to change. Words do acquire new meanings. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use “momentarily” in the older sense of “for a moment.” And now that I think about it, I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t think I even knew that “momentarily” meant “for a moment,” as in “He paused momentarily.”

Howard Sutherland writes:

One explanation I remember of the shall/will, should/would distinction is that in ordinary speech or writing one ought to use shall and should in the first person, both singular and plural, and will and would for the second and third persons, again both singular and plural, in forming the simple future and conditional tenses. In imperatives and in strong statements of volition one reverses this protocol for emphasis, so that will and would become correct in the first person, while shall and should become correct for the second and third persons. [LA replies: I’m sorry to sound like an anti-intellectual, but that rule, which is the underlying subject of much of this thread, is so complicated and arbitrary that it’s very hard for people to remember it.]

Thus a well-spoken Englishman would say “I shall go up to London tomorrow” (in the ordinary course of business) but “I will go up to London tomorrow!” (and you won’t stop me), and “You will go to your room at nine o’clock” (because that’s when you always go up to bed) but “You shall go to your room this minute!” (because you’ve been a naughty boy).

I should hope that you will find this useful. Or perhaps I ought to say: You shall follow this rule, and I will see to it that you do! And that never shall you split an infinitive, not even if it is allowed on Star Trek. Cheers. HRS

LA replies:

I thank Mr. Sutherland very much for this. In the midst of posting all these comments, I had not had the time to look up the rule itself, which perhaps I learned at some point but I had forgotten and have never used. Now I’ve got to try to absorb it and learn it.

By the way, in memorizing the Gospel of Mark, which I’ve been doing slowly and intermittantly over the last year (I’m up through the middle of the fifth chapter), one of the challenges to memorization is the King James Version’s seemingly arbitrary use of “shall” and “will.” But perhaps, if looked at in terms of the shall/will rule, what has seemed arbitrary to me will start to make sense.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 29, 2012 05:27 PM | Send

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