February 23, 2008

Will need never happen

Are any fellow readers of The Economist puzzling over the final sentence in the article that ends on page 100 (issue of 23 February 2008)? It says this (about a plan for forecasting of viral outbreaks in Africa):

And then a catastrophe like AIDS will need never happen again.

I think it is just a word processing error, not an anomalous occurrence of a double modal in written Standard English. I think the writer wrote need never happen again (which is fine; need is a modal verb, so the negative adverb never comes after it), and then decided it didn't sound future-oriented enough, and considered saying will never need to happen again (which would be grammatical, with never following the modal verb will and the lexical verb need taking a to-infinitival complement, because it is not a modal verb). Perhaps the writer got as far as putting in the will, but then the phone rang or something, and things were left in that state. From then on it was the responsibility of the editors to notice the slip, but they failed to spot it.

The phrase *will never need happen does have an odd tendency to slip by without being noticed. But it definitely is not grammatical in Standard English. The need that takes no to is a modal, and thus has no plain form, and thus cannot follow another modal. Will never need to happen is an entirely different kettle of fish — it uses the lexical verb need rather than the modal. Will need never to happen is different again: it has a different meaning, because when never is placed after the lexical verb need it can only be understood as belonging to the happen clause. You therefore get the meaning "will necessarily not happen" rather than the meaning "will not necessarily happen". That's what we see in attested examples like "And we will need never to repeat the lunacy of awarding a raise to a bunch of out-of-touch, tax-crazy, office-seekers. The angry person who wrote that (probably struggling to avoid a split infinitive) means it is necessary that we never repeat the lunacy (need + [never repeat]), not that we will never need to repeat it (never + [need to repeat]).

Added a bit later:
Now that I've said what I immediately suspected had happened at The Economist, and I've had a few minutes to examine some Google hits, let me point out why I could be wrong: there are other people who have used the very same construction (will need never + Verb) in their writing on various blogs and other websites:

Maybe your heart will need never melt, in the wake of your having frozen it.

Speak evil of no one and you will need never whisper.

Your man will need never be asked to make an effort again.

Ever tried searching for something for your Land Rover, and couldn't find the answer? Well now with thanks to our website, you will need never worry again.

If those who love you can affect you, you will need never lose heart or suffer depression.

In doing this you will discover your very own way of listening to your Goddess Queen, and you will need never feel powerless, confused, or victimized...

That way, the server will need never send a broadcast to a client attached to a non-primary interface.

In most cases, you will need never deal with the taxing authority again...

Once you become a Lifetime member, you will need never pay a single cent more... [This one appears to be quoting a printed source.]

And P. Orbis Proszynski points out to me that the Routledge book The Philosophy of Utopia by Barbara Goodwin contains the sentence Having fully realised the principles of socialism, the citizens of utopia will need never again concern themselves with serious questions. That one seems particularly convincing.

Although we cannot rule out the possibility that all of these are word-processing errors too, as the number we gather goes up the plausibility of their being accidental word misplacements goes down, and the probability that a new construction is being born goes up.

This would be a new instance of what one might (cautiously) call a double-modal construction in which the modal need is permitted to occur as the head verb in the (bare infinitival) complement of the modal verb will.

Notice, I am not saying that my intuition is a gold standard for what goes on in proper English; but on the other hand I am not saying that if something occurs in a few comments on blogs it is therefore correct like everything else that people say or write. This pair of extremes make up the false dichotomy I have written about elsewhere: the pointless clash of "Everything is correct" versus "nothing is relevant" (Language Log, January 26, 2005). Syntactic investigation is difficult. Sporadic slips occur, we know that; but unrecognized but fully regular new constructions develop as well; and presumably at some points we are in a difficult grey area where a sporadic slip has become more than a little frequent and a new construction is starting to grow as a result. Knowing which of these situations one is in is a matter of very considerable epistemological difficulty. The reason we are so angry-sounding when we talk about complacent, simplistic, know-it-all grammar pontificators here at Language Log is not because we know it all; it's because nobody does, but it would be interesting to find out.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 23, 2008 10:43 AM