December 25, 2007

Be that as it may have been

Today is a day for enjoying presents, and so I was happy to put a few minutes into helping Arnold Zwicky enjoy his 1915 Funk & Wagnalls Faulty Diction. (Unexpectedly, there seems to be no rock band named "Faulty Diction".)

Commenting on that work's proscription of be that as it will -- said to be "Erroneously substituted for be that as it may" -- Arnold observed that both variants seem to be just about equally represented on the web, and that Fielding, Defoe and Locke are among the authors who used the version with will. Arnold speculated that "[i]t might be that the will variant was current in the 18th century but dipped in use by good authors in the 19th".

As my contribution to Arnold's Christmas cheer, here's a graph of the counts of "be that as I will" vs. "be that as it may", in the prose section of the LION index, in 20-year segments from 1700 to 1900:

This certainly tends to confirm Arnold's notion that "be that as it will" declined after 1800; it indicates that "be that as it may" was a mid-19th-century fasion; and it suggests that both versions of the expression were past their sell-by date in 1915.

If you'd like your very own copy of Faulty Diction ("A Brief Statement of the General Principles Determining Correctness in English Speech and Writing, With Their Application to Some of the More Common Instances of Violation and to Some of the Mooted Questions Regarding Usage"), a .pdf is available from Google Books here.

[Based on this case, some might wonder whether this book's questions regarding usage were really mooted in 1915 ("proposed or brought forward for discussion; talked of, discussed, debated."), or moot ("having no practical significance or relevance; abstract, academic").]

[Note: the counts in the graph are incomplete, because pages 3, 6 and 10 of LION's prose-index results for be that as it may turned up an error message rather than a list of citations, so the dates on those pages were left out. Since the results are in alphabetical order, I doubt that this changed the historical facts very much.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 25, 2007 11:57 AM