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English usage: "what would seem to be."
February 18, 2010 5:32 PM   Subscribe

What's the proper use of the phrase "what would seem to be"?

Over all, most Taliban small-arms fire has been haphazard and ineffective, an unimpressive display of ill discipline or poor skill. But this more familiar brand of Taliban shooting has been punctuated by the work of what would seem to be several well-trained marksmen. -- Today's New York Times
Why what would seem to be? How about "the work of what seem to be well-trained marksmen"? Or "apparently well-trained marksmen"? Or just omitting the phrase altogether: "the work of well-trained marksmen"?

I don't doubt the NYT is using English correctly, I'm just wondering what the justification is for the construction, and when to use it.
posted by exphysicist345 to Education (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well I'm no grammar expert but it seems to be a form of the conditional tense or mood (some argument about whether conditional is a true tense).

I think that this construction is meant to convey a general opinion on some matter without the author personally owning the characterization. I think it's simply a way to construct the sentence with maximum impartiality.

Common sense (or popular opinion) might say that the marksmen are well-trained, but the author (a) doesn't have evidence to support that conclusion other than the fact that they are not "haphazard and ineffective," as marksmen other than these tend to be, and therefore (b) doesn't want to own that opinion himself.

Your other two constructions, "what seem to be" and "apparently," seem to make the characterization of the marksmen as well-trained one that the author himself is positing.

Short answer: I think it makes the characterization one that the author is reporting rather than expressing.
posted by jckll at 5:43 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


To me, the difference is that:

"the work of what seem to be well-trained marksmen"? Or "apparently well-trained marksmen"?

implies that there are definitely marksmen, and the debate is only how well-trained they are. It implies there is a definite group of people we know exist.

while

the work of what would seem to be several well-trained marksmen

makes it more clear that this is speculation, and the author has no factual evidence about any marksmen. It could have been aliens, a really big dog, anything. It's conjecture based on evidence, but no marksmen have been spotted or are known to exist.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:47 PM on February 18, 2010


I'm sure you thought about this far long than the author did. The difference is slight. Your version is a little clearer, but theirs is still correct. Use it when you feel like it.
posted by colinshark at 5:48 PM on February 18, 2010


It's to emphasise that the correspondent has only seen the work of the Taliban, not the actual Taliban fighters.

"What seem to be well-trained marksmen" implies that the correspondent has had contact with the marksmen in some other fashion than simply observing how close the bullets are landing.

Read it as a contraction of "what would seem [, considering the haphazard ineffective ill-disciplined fire most Taliban have shown,] to be the work of well-trained marksmen".

"Apparently" would also have worked.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:52 PM on February 18, 2010


They would seem to be well trained but on the other hand, maybe they are just lucky and not as well trained as they seem to be.
posted by MsKim at 6:13 PM on February 18, 2010


Coincidentally, the late NYT language columnist Safire addressed this not that long ago -- at least the "would seem" (and other implications of the word "would") part. He called it a "dodge".

It would seem, though, that "would seem" is fairly idiomatic. It's in the NYT archives back to the 1850s.

The real point is that indeed there is as yet no evidence they are well-trained marksmen or just uncommonly lucky shots. To me, the "would seem" puts the speculation onto the soldiers or omniscience rather than the author.
posted by dhartung at 6:20 PM on February 18, 2010


I agree with jckll's take on it.

The phrasing is a somewhat classical usage of a conditional mood that downplays the author's investment in the conclusion. It does so by displacing the conclusion one step further from the author as a hypothetical. The hypothetical is implicit and basically is "If I were compelled to draw a conclusion about the my perception of the event, then it would seem to be..."

I see this kind of phrasing especially in some British vernacular, where the goal seems to be (heh) to express politeness or deference to the reader's own opinion. I also see it in scientific correspondence where the researcher is trying to temper their preliminary conclusions instead of making a blunt assertion.

As this column by William Safire notes, "it would seem" makes the author's opinion not so much about the actual occurrence, but about the author's perception of the occurrence. You can feel free to disagree with the author on what actually happened, but the author is, presumably, an expert on what seemed to him to have happened. And thus, using the word "would" allows the author to speak authoritatively about what he knows (i.e., what his perceptions were), rather than making an assertive statement about something that is still in doubt (i.e., what actually occurred).

These distinctions aren't generally processed by the reader/listener on a conscious level, I think. But the result is a kind of subconscious coloring of the author's statement that is less assertive and perhaps less blunt to the reader's/listener's ear.
posted by darkstar at 6:22 PM on February 18, 2010


dammit dhartung! :P
posted by darkstar at 6:23 PM on February 18, 2010


Thanks for the link to the late William Saffire's column on this very phrase. (For some reason, Google didn't turn it up.)
“The verb seem,’ ” my linguistic source holds, “makes it clear that the speaker is talking about his perception, not about objective reality. And ‘would’ adds the implicit ‘if I’ve understood things correctly’ or some such caveat.”
So yes, the Times writer is being careful. He's not going out on a limb and declaring that there actually are any marksmen, well-trained or not. He's just saying that there would seem to be some out there, based on troop casualties. And what might strike some ears as formal or pretentious is actually honest writing.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:48 PM on February 18, 2010


I write for a living and I am something of an expert on grammar. This is a style question, not a grammar one. Constructions like "would seem" and "would suggest" annoy me because they look to me like the writer is expressing an opinion without being willing to own up to holding it. What the writer quoted by the OP meant was probably just "... what seem [to someone--who?] to have been well-trained ...". So why didn't he or she just write that? As far as I'm concerned, constructions like "would seem" have no legitimate use unless there's a condition following (for example, "would seem to be x ... if something else were true"). But this is probably not what the writer meant.
posted by Logophiliac at 12:27 AM on February 19, 2010


> Constructions like "would seem" and "would suggest" annoy me because they look to me like the writer is expressing an opinion without being willing to own up to holding it. What the writer quoted by the OP meant was probably just "... what seem [to someone--who?] to have been well-trained ...". So why didn't he or she just write that?

You're not an expert on grammar, you're an expert on peeves. The correct understanding of this is given by darkstar. It's generally safe to ignore anyone who tells you that some normal English construction is illogical, illegitimate, etc., and tells you what the writer "should have" written.
posted by languagehat at 8:18 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


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