December 24, 2007

Be that as it will

My friend Steven Levine collects stuff from garage sales, estate sales, and the like, and passes them along to his friends.  My most recent gift  from Steven is a 1915 Funk & Wagnalls booklet (only 80 small pages) Faulty Diction, which I expect to be mining for material for some time.  Here's an entry for a proscription that was new to me (p. 18):

be that as it will.  Erroneously substituted for be that as it may.

Consonant with this judgment is the fact  that both the Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms (1998) and the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms (2003) list be that as it may but not be that as it will (or the other variants be this as it may/will).

Meanwhile, hoi polloi on the web use all four variants with very similar frequencies:

be that as it may: 387,000    be that as it will: 267,000
be this as it may: 160,000    be this as it will: 160,000

These numbers are not gigantic, which is not surprising, since be that as it may is formal in style, and Google web searches turn up a lot of (very) informal writing.  So I suppose it could be claimed that what the web searches show is that ordinary people have an imperfect command of formal idioms.  Against this is the fact that a lot of the be that as it will cites are from thoroughly respectable sources:

"Well," cries Jones, "be that as it will, it shall be your own fault, as I have promised you, if you ever hear any more of this adventure. Behave kindly to the girl, and I will never open my lips concerning the matter to any one."  [Henry Fielding, Tom Jones]

But be that as it will, the world shall, for once, hear what account an Englishman shall give of Scotland, who has had occasion to see most of it, and to make critical enquiries into what he has not seen ...  [Daniel Defoe, Introduction to the Account and Description of Scotland]

But, be that as it will, this is certain, that whoever pursues his own thoughts, will find them sometimes launch out beyond the extent of body, into the infinity of space or expansion ...  [John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding]

... Be that as it will, in general I dislike very much the Venetian School and prefer the Flemish to it in its own way, that is to say with an exception to the finest works of Titian, of which the Danae at Naples, I think, is the most pleasing picture in Italy and consequently in the world.  [Lord Holland, letter from Florence, 5 August 1794]

Now I see that be that as it might gets 250,000 hits and be this as it might 128,000, with many from reputable sources.

So what's the source of the judgment that there is only one correct variant?  (Plenty of idioms have variant forms, after all: be/lie at the bottom of something, time hangs/lies heavy (on someone's hands), lay/put your cards on the table, have/hold all the cards, etc.)  And that this is the variant with may rather than will or might (not to mention that rather than this)?  (I find all of the variants unremarkable.)  These are serious questions for the F&W booklet, since it claims to be based on "scientific principles", in particular the principle that

Usage to be good should be reputable, that is, it should have the sanction of good authors or (to be the best usage) of the best authors.  (p. 4)

What's more, the offenses in the booklet are supposed to be serious ones:

The faulty expressions treated are comparatively few, since rigid principles of exclusion have been enforced by the limitations of space.  ... The examples given are sufficient to illustrate the various classes of faulty usage that need to be guarded against.  (p. 3)

(It should be obvious that the Faulty Diction people were not proponents of Avoid Passive, or of avoiding "passive style", and indeed the booklet -- published three years before Strunk's Elements of Style, with its famous antipathy towards the passive voice and passive style -- doesn't warn against either.)

Now I very much doubt that in this case (and in many others) the compilers of the booklet actually consulted the practice of good authors.  The judgment looks to me like an expression of personal taste, a quirk even.  Not that there's anything wrong with expressing personal tastes in print -- but this sort of booklet is not the place to display them.

At the moment, I have no idea what the practice of good authors was then or is now, and I'm not prepared to do the necessary searches with the resources available to me and in the time available to me.  It might be that the will variant was current in the 18th century but dipped in use by good authors in the 19th, though for the entry to occur in Faulty Diction it must have been fairly frequent a hundred years ago.   But I'm inclined to think that the compilers of the booklet just pulled the proscription out of the air.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 24, 2007 08:48 PM