"As well [pronoun] should"
December 9, 2008 11:49 PM   Subscribe

GrammarFilter: Origins and form of "As well he should"?

I find myself using the phrase "as well [pronoun] should," more and more lately but cannot for the life of me figure out what is going on grammatically and linguistically:

What are the origins of this phrase? Is it a quotation or a reference?
Both the word choice and construction seem archaic - what are the origins?
The subject of the clause comes after the verb - why?
Is this some particular structure of forming clauses that has siblings?

I hope someone shares my fascination with this phrase, and can help enlighten me a bit! I know this is a back-to-back language post, so maybe we can drum up some interest.
posted by coolhappysteve to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Think of similar phrases:

"As well he might" and "as well he could" . . .

. . . both of which I've heard before. (I'm a non-native speaker.)

"Well," in those sentences, is an adverb that carries the meaning of "certainly."

So in other words, your phrase means "as he certainly should (do)." (That missing "do" is a stand-in for whatever verb was in the original statement that elicited the response in question.)

It feels a little archaic to me, but not so archaic that I didn't understand this phrase when I first encountered it. I suspect that the weird form of this phrase has its origins in the odd ways that modal verbs and that odd English "do + verb" construction affect sentence patterns when allowing the "main" verb to be dropped.

For instance, examine the following dialogue:

Speaker A: "She sings very well."
Speaker B: "Doesn't she!"

In most languages I've studied, that's impossible to translate exactly - as simple as it seems - because it's not possible to give a kind of rhetorical response like that without either using the original verb ("sing") or resorting to some sort of catchphrase like "c'est vrai!"

Also, think of how British speakers of English drop verbs:

Speaker A: "You should walk the dog."
Speaker B: "Yes, I should do."

So, to go back to the original sentence:

Speaker A: "I'm thinking of asking my husband to give me a diamond necklace for Christmas."
Speaker B: "As well he should!"

In other words:

Speaker A: "I'm thinking of asking my husband to give me a diamond necklace for Christmas."
Speaker B: "As he certainly should do!"

When viewed in this context, the only "odd" thing is the fact that the adverb changes position. But in English, adverbs are tricky things position-wise (take this from someone who didn't learn as a child) and their usage has changed over time, too . . . meaning that there are many strange archaic set phrases that act like this one.

I don't know if this is much of an answer!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:40 AM on December 10, 2008

Best answer: Should is a modal auxillary verb which alters the grammatical mood of a phrase.

It's an obscure, somewhat archaic, complex, not oft covered area of English grammar. Mood is much more commonly varied in the grammar of Romance languages like French and Italian.

A couple of inroads which may be of interest:

English modal auxillary verbs

Subjunctive mood
posted by protorp at 2:37 AM on December 10, 2008

Best answer: Just some more points to think about:

The following are some words or expressions you can substitute for 'well':
- indeed, in fact
- I think, it seems, etc.

With respect to the unusual word order the subjunctive isn't always necessary: you can say things like "as well he should," "as indeed he should," and "as indeed he did" - though I don't think you can say "as well he did." (note: after thinking about it for a few minutes, I'm beginning to find "as well he has" okay. All judgments should be taken with a grain of salt.)
posted by trig at 3:01 AM on December 10, 2008

Best answer: Dee Xtrovert is basically right. It's a combination of an archaic construction (we don't use "well" in this sense except in the construction "[someone] might/may/could well [verb]") and the typically Germanic transposition following a sentence-initial conjunction (compare "As goes Maine, so goes America," versus "Maine goes Republican").

There is no subjunctive in English (though there are remnants of an earlier subjunctive).
posted by languagehat at 5:52 AM on December 10, 2008

Not that this is at all a scientific answer, but compare "just as well that he should."
posted by Electrius at 10:50 AM on December 10, 2008

Response by poster: You guys are fantastic. Thanks for the links, protorp. This was exactly the kind of stuff I was looking for, and you guys were typically collegial and helpful! Thanks!
posted by coolhappysteve at 12:26 AM on December 11, 2008

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