Would that I could...

Posted by Smokey Stover on February 13, 2008 at 16:30:

In Reply to: Would that I could... posted by Monica on February 13, 2008 at 08:16:

: 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.)