Q: I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by the mildly antiquated, mildly high-brow, somewhat poetic use of “would” in this sentence: “Jeane Kirkpatrick famously condemned the ‘Blame America First’ Democrats; would that she had lived long enough to condemn the ‘Blame America First’ libertarians.” Can you tell me more about it?
A: What you’re describing is a subjunctive usage involving the phrase “would that.” We’ve often written about the subjunctive on our blog, including a posting last September, but we haven’t explained this specific “would” usage.
Your example—from a column by Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review—reminds us of John Kerry’s appearance on The Daily Show when he was running for President in 2004.
Jon Stewart, alluding to Kerry’s wife, an heir to the Heinz food fortune, asked him: “Is it true that every time I use ketchup, your wife gets a nickel?”
Kerry replied, “Would that it were, would that it were.”
Kerry was using the phrase “would that” to express a wish or a desire, which requires an accompanying verb in the subjunctive mood: “were,” here.
Predictably, this rather elevated usage drew some sneers from the other side. If Kerry had wanted to appeal to the populist vote, a simple “I wish!” might have been more effective. But his English was grammatically (if not politically) correct.
The use of “would” in subjunctive constructions is less common these days than the similar use of “wish.” In fact, Kerry could have substituted “I wish” for “would that” (“I wish it were, I wish it were”).
Similarly, you could use either “would that” or “I wish” in examples like these: “Would that [I wish] she were here” … “Would that [I wish] it were over” … “Would that [I wish] I were rich” … “Would that [I wish] Rover were young again.”
In the subjunctive mood, “was” becomes “were,” so it’s easy to identify the examples above as subjunctive usages.
But when the accompanying verb is not a form of “be,” as in that sentence about Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, the use of the subjunctive is harder to recognize.
There, too, the writer could have used “I wish” instead of “would that” (“I wish she had lived long enough…”).
The use of “would” in subjunctive constructions is very old, dating back to Old English. You’ve probably seen in it the phrase “would rather,” as in “My father would rather I be killed than dishonored.”
In older literary usage, “would” was sometimes used alone in subjunctive constructions: “Would she were yet alive!” … “Would I were able to help you.”
And sometimes “that” was used alone: “O that I were with you still!” … “O that she were mine!” In these cases, the “that” clause is the object of an unexpressed wish, so the subjunctive “were” is used instead of “was.”
Check out our books about the English language