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Re: Would that I could...

Posted by Pamela on February 14, 2008 at 00:23:

In Reply to: Re: Would that I could... posted by RRC on February 13, 2008 at 17:54:

: : : Searching for the origin of the phrase "Would that I could, but I can't, so I shan't." I may be misquoting a bit. "That" could be replaced with "if," etc. I recently used "Would that I could..." in a opinion piece for my local paper and my editor questioned it. I don't know that he had ever heard it, but I was at something of a loss to explain it. Now I'm curious. Any help would be appreciated.

: : It makes sense in ordinary, if a tad stilted, English. But don't replace "that" with "if," as it changes the syntax of the sentence, even if not the essential meaning. The initial "I" has been elided, but add that and you have, "I wish that I could, but I can't so I won't." It sounds better the original way, of course. Someone somewhere said it or wrote it and enough people echoed it for you to hear it. BUt I don't know who started it. It's probably British. Modern Americans don't say "shan't." (I have occasionally done so, but I'm not a modern American.)
: : SS

: As a modern American, I say "I would if I could, but I can't so I won't." Also this version gets 592 Google hits while the shan't one as posted above gets exactly 0.

And my mongrel version ("I would if I could, but I can't so I shan't) gets a paltry 17. This might be a matter of accent, but the would/could can't/shant version (either one, sytax or not) rhymes, which is surely why it passed into common use? Pamela