Thursday, 13 March 2008

On whatever will be will ... be

A correspondent from Finland writes to say that 'in a recent English test, the pupils were supposed to demonstrate their ability to use the will-future by forming questions to a fortune teller. My daughter wrote: What will be my husband's name? which the teacher corrected to What will my husband's name be?, deducting one point for the mistake.' She feels her daughter's word-order was correct. What do I think?

Both word-orders are certainly possible. Try typing the string 'what will be' into Google (using inverted commas around the string) and you will get many examples. Here are two (the first from the New Scientist):

What will be the biggest breakthrough of the next 50 years?
What will be the quality of these jobs?

The examples point to one of the reasons for this word-order: the length of the complement construction which follows the verb. If this is short, there is no problem with inserting text between the auxiliary and be, but as it gets longer, such an insertion becomes much less likely. Compare:

What will the breakthrough be?
What will the biggest breakthrough be?
What will the biggest breakthrough of the next 50 years be?
What will the biggest and most dramatic breakthrough of the next 50 years be?

There comes a point where the distance between will and be is so great that the sentence starts to be difficult to process. The solution is to keep the verb phrase united.

When the complement is very short, the end-placed be is normal and natural. The principle applies to a whole raft of sentences, such as:

What could the matter be?
Who will the captain be?
What will the outcome be?

But the alternative word-order is also possible:

What could be the matter?
Who will be the captain?
What will be the outcome?

The difference is stylistic: the latter is somewhat more literary and formal. Perhaps this is why the teacher did not like it. And certainly, in a context where the sentences are generally colloquial (as would probably have been the case in an intimate chat with a fortune-teller), the will be usage might easily have sounded anomalous. However, it is perfectly possible to make will sentences informal, by using a contracted auxiliary; and when one does so, it turns out that the will be construction is actually preferred. Here are the stats for two quick searches on Google today:

Who'll be the captain? 5 hits
Who'll the captain be? 0 hits
What'll be the outcome? 2260 hits
What'll the outcome be? 204 hits


Anonymous said...

Hi! Just read this post and I found that it sparked off a few ideas. I take it that you were referring to the principle of end weight (or possibly the principle of end focus). This principle seems to be what motivates the word order in those "what will be..." sentences.

I was just thinking about what it was that motivated two writers to pervert the natural word order in the following two sentences. I believe that they are both examples of "Fronting":

(1) "To many of these people I have dearly wished to write"

(2) "With this contention I hasten to agree"

I'm sorry I can't remember the sources, although I'm pretty sure that I found (2) in an essay by Aldous Huxley. My two questions are these: firstly, what sort of principle, according to you, induced the writers to use "fronting"? And secondly, in terms of grammar what exactly is "fronted" in these examples? I'd suggest as an answer to my first question some sort of "emphasis" principle, but that is pretty vague, I have to admit.

As an answer to the second question I feel inclined to say something about "complements" or "complement phrases" as you did in your post. But can you be more specific than I am and tell me what sort of item "to many of these people" (fronted in (1) ) and "with this contention" actually are? They don't seem like objects (at least not direct objects).

Anyway, great post so far. Very informative!

DC said...

Yes, end-weight I was thinking of. And yes, your examples are of fronting. There's a good discussion of this in the big Quirk grammar, 18.20, where they say 'the reason for fronting may be to echo thematically what has been contextually given' - a point which certainly applies to your examples, where both sentences refer back to something in the previous linguistic context, as shown by the this and these. (There are other reasons for fronting, of course, and a notion of emphasis is usually involved.)

Technically, in the first examples, it is the indirect object which has been fronted, and in the second an adverbial.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! That helped a lot. I had a feeling that it was an "indirect object" that had been fronted in:

(1)"To many of these people I have dearly wished to write"

But the reason I didn't say that was the presence of the preposition "to". Do you mean to say that the term "indirect object" is correctly applied to the whole prepositional phrase "to many of these people"? Or is the indirect object JUST "many of these people" so that what is fronted is, more explicitly, the indirect object PLUS the preposition? I was basically trying to work out how to classify the phrase "to many of these people".

Anyway, thanks for the Quirk reference. I look forward to looking it up. Word order is a fascinating topic, I feel.

DC said...

The whole prepositional phrase is the indirect object, in this word order. Note the relationship between I wrote the people a letter, where the indirect object has no preposition, and I wrote a letter to the people, where it does.