"I'm here to be told"

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In a production of Hapgood last night at the Lantern Theater, I was struck by a phrase that the character Elizabeth Hapgood uses four times. In fact, it caught my attention the first time she used it — as I've noted, a word or short phrase can be contextually salient even at a frequency of one (See e.g. "And yet", 3/28/2004).

Hapgood is the complex, not to say baffling, story of double (and triple and quadruple) agents, in which literal and fictional twins play a key role in complex espionage and counter-espionage operations. If  you're interested, you can find a plot summary here.

The phrase in question is "I'm here to be told", meaning something like "There's some information that I'm expecting from you, but not immediately, so I'm here standing by until you can tell me". The first three times that Hapgood uses it are in the context of radio communication with field agents during an operation, where it's clear to them what she wants to know or what she wants done, and "I'm here to be told" is essentially an instruction to them to do their job and report back. Her final use of the phrase is in a telephone conversation with her son, in which he's due to give her details about a rugby match that he'll be playing in. McKenna Kerrigan, the actor playing Elizabeth Hapgood, produced all four examples crisply, seriously, and without hesitation.

Although it's obvious in context what the phrase means, I don't recall ever having heard it before.  A search in Google Books comes up empty. A general web search turns up a few example with a complement to told and a rather different sort of meaning, for example "I’m not here to be told my pictures aren’t good. I’m here to be told why they weren’t good so I can improve."

Nevertheless, someone that I asked about this said that it was a familiar phrase from her background, and that Hapgood's use of it hadn't registered with her at all.

So there are several available theories, here as in everything else about this play.

  • Perhaps this is a normal expression in a sociolinguistic variety of English foreign to me, and for some reason not well represented on the web;
  • Perhaps this is part of radio conversation jargon, in British espionage practice or more generally, in the real world or in Stoppard's imagination;
  • Perhaps this is a phrase invented or adapted as part of the author's attempt to create Elizabeth Hapgood's character.

All three might be true, or the truth might be something I haven't thought of yet.

In the version of the play published here, Hapgood uses the phrase twice in this sequence:

Hapgood (to radio)  Where is he?
Radio  In the Peugeot.
Hapgood (patiently)  Thank you, Cotton, and where is the Peugeot?
Radio  Camden High Street.
Hapgood  Pick him up and I want everything, I want him in a plastic bag.
Radio  Yes, ma'am.
Hapgood  Contents of briefcase. I'm here to be told.
Radio  You know it's twins?
Hapgood  Yes, I know it's twins.
  (To Ridley) You take Kerner -- go through him, do it properly.
  (To radio) Chamberlain.
Ridley  Kerner's clean.
Radio  P.O.B.
Hapgood  (to radio) I know.
Ridley  I did the switch
Hapgood  (to Ridley, more sharply) Move.
    Ridley exits to the lobby.
  (To radio) Where are you?
Radio  Chalk Farm, turning west on Adelaide.
Hapgood  Bring him in.
Radio  Say again?
Hapgood  Just do it.
Radio  OK, guv.
Hapgood  Taxi needs back-up.
Radio (new voice)  Roger.
Hapgood  I'm here to be told. 
    (She turns the gadget off, hesitates, and turns it on again.)

The context for the third use:

Ridley  Listen -- tell Blair. It's no good without him -- 
        he'll have the watchers outside your flat before you get home, 
        you'll be babysat like the Queen of England, nothing will reach you, 
        there'll be a tap on your phone and on every line into this building.
Hapgood  Except this one (the red one). 
         It's the one Joe will tell them, he knows the trip-code. 
         I've always broken the rules.
Ridley  And what then? You won't be able to go to the bathroom, let alone a meet.
Hapgood  I know all of that.
Ridley  That's if Blair isn't sitting here when the call comes in, 
        he'll go where you go.
Hapgood  I won't be here. You'll be here.
Ridley  Jesus, I can't answer it. It has to be you.
Hapgood  It will be me.
Ridley  You can't be in two places at once.
Hapgood  (suddenly out of patience) I'm not busking, Ridley, I know how to do this,
         so is it you and me or not?
    Pause. Ridley nods.
         I'll need two or three hours. Have you got a radio?
Ridley  Not with me.
    Hapgood takes her radio out of her bag and gives it to him.
Hapgood  I'll reach you on it: don't try to talk to me on anything else. 
         Don't go home, go to a hotel.
Ridley  Mother, I know what to do. (He goes to leave.) Will you be all right?
Hapgood  That thing's got a two-mile range, stay close.
    Ridley nods and goes, closing the door.
    Hapgood waits. She opens a desk drawer and takes out another radio.
    She lays the radio on the desk and waits again. 
    The radio must have a blink-light; perhaps we can see it. Hapgood picks it up.
  (To radio) Is he clear?
Radio  Green.
Hapgood  (to radio) I'm here to be told.
    She puts the radio back on the desk.
    She starts dialling on the red telephone.
    Maggs enters, wearing a topcoat.
Maggs  Good night, Mrs Hapgood.
Hapgood  Good night, Maggs. Thank you.
Maggs  I won't ask

And the last one:

Hapgood (into phone)  Oh, hello, Joe! Are you all right, darling?
    Kerner enters with a bottle of vodka and three cups.
Kerner  Magnificent.
Blair  Thank you.
Kerner  No, me. You were terrible. I never believed a word of it.
Hapgood (into phone)  No, it was just to tell you not to phone tomorrow 
                      in case you were going to. I'm away.
Blair (to Kerner)  Not even the photographs?
Hapgood (into phone)  Oh, good.
Kerner  The photographs I liked.
Blair  Yes?
Hapgood (into phone)  In the hutch? Well, I was nearly right.
    Meanwhile Kerner has poured three tots of vodka into the cups.
Thank you, Joseph.
    Kerner and Blair toast each other and knock back the vodka.
(Into phone)  Well, you're daft -- do they fit?
Blair (to Kerner) Come on, then.
    Blair puts his cup down and leaves the room. 
    Kerner closes the door after him and remains in the room.
Hapgood (into phone)  That's all right . . . when is Saturday?
         The day after tomorrow . . . well, probably, I might.
         Home or away?
    Kerner gently takes the phone from her and listens to the phone 
    for a few moments and then gives it back to her, and leaves the room.
(Into phone) Yes, I'm here. Yes, All right. Well, let me know on Saturday morning.
   Yes, Joe, I'm here to be told.

 



25 Comments »

  1. Andrew Usher said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 5:35 pm

    I would definitely notice it in that meaning, after I figured it out. I would take the usual (and unremarkable, even if the expression is not common) meaning as 'I am expecting (or demanding) to be told here and now'. If there a different intonation than would be expecting for my meaning?

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

    [(myl) There was nothing special about the intonation in that performance — ordinary pitch accents on "here" and "told", with a final fall. And as I said, it was clear in context that the phrase was used to indicate that the speaker was waiting for a response when available, not immediately.]

  2. Lars said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 7:04 pm

    From the headline, I hadn't expected this phrase to be intransitive. To me it screams for a (possibly prepositional) object. Since I'm not a native speaker, would that make y'all feel better about it?

  3. Dan said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 7:26 pm

    When I saw the article title, I immediately heard it in the voice of the actress in the production of Hapgood I saw 20 years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve never encountered that phrase anywhere else.

  4. AntC said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 7:55 pm

    Isn't slightly disjointed, even surreal, language Stoppard's 'thing'?

    I frequently come away from watching/listening to his plays feeling a bit jarred. And I don't think it's just the twists in the plot.

    Where else have you heard the phrase The dog it was that died, for example?

    @Lars, Stoppard too is (arguably) not a native speaker and/or first learnt English in an International school in India.

  5. Glenn Branch said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 8:34 pm

    @AntC:

    Oliver Goldsmith, "An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog" (1766), ends:

    But soon a wonder came to light,
    That showed the rogues they lied:
    The man recovered of the bite,
    The dog it was that died.

  6. Bathrobe said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 9:28 pm

    The construction isn't unusual ("I'm here to learn", "I'm here to have a tooth out", "tourists are here to be fleeced") but in my English the circumstances in this case are a stretch. It sounds like a fancy way of saying "I'm here waiting to be told".

  7. Anthony said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 9:52 pm

    The intransitivity of "tell" is the problem. There's nothing wrong with "I'm here to be fingerprinted."

  8. Bathrobe said,

    September 9, 2018 @ 10:12 pm

    "Tell" isn't intransitive. It's actually ditransitive, although not in the normal sense of direct object and indirect object. "Tell someone something".

  9. Max Wheeler said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 1:42 am

    Tell monotransitive in the expression "you won't be told", i.e. 'you refuse to accept advice / orders'.

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 4:29 am

    From the excerpts, this feels very much like Stoppard using a novel phrase to create the character – perhaps with a double meaning for purposes of metafictional commentary (i.e., "I exist to be narrated").

    Pretty sure it's not in general usage in BrE today – at least I've never heard it in my 40-odd years.

  11. Miles said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 4:53 am

    As a Brit who has never heard of this play, when I started reading this post, I assumed it was some Americanism that I wasn't familiar with. So, I was rather surprised to find it's from a British source. "I'm here to be told" is not a natural phrase to me – the sense I would get is someone who has come to be given instruction: "You're the boss – I'm here to be told what to do".

  12. Miles said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 5:00 am

    I should have asked if it's down to dialect: is there anything to indicate that the character comes from a particular part of the UK?

  13. Robot Therapist said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 5:45 am

    How would you naturally convey that meaning?

    As a UK speaker, I'd say "let me know when you find out" or "I need to know about it".

  14. Breffni said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 7:33 am

    @Bathrobe: Hapgood's "I'm here to be told" isn't quite like your examples, in which "here" refers to an identifiable place: "I'm here [at university] to learn", "I'm here [at the dentist] to have a tooth out", "tourists are here [in Montmartre] to be fleeced". It's more like the existential "here" of "I'm here to help" (I'm ready to help when you need me), or indeed, going back to tell, "I'm here to tell you…". Like Miles upthread, I would have guessed "here to be told" was an American expression, maybe because of that resemblance.

  15. Bathrobe said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 8:07 am

    @ Breffni

    Maybe, but in this case I would have thought that 'here' means 'at the other end of the line'. A bit like 'I'm here if you need me', where 'here' means little more than 'available'.

  16. Michael Watts said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 10:55 am

    "Tell" isn't intransitive. It's actually ditransitive, although not in the normal sense of direct object and indirect object. "Tell someone something".

    How is this different from the normal sense you refer to? There is free alternation between "tell someone something" and "tell something to someone", exactly the same way you see for other English dative-like constructions.

  17. Bathrobe said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 11:03 am

    I find "I told something to someone" strange and wouldn't use it. Maybe others disagree.

  18. Bill Taylor said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 11:25 am

    X told Y to Z (as opposed to X told Z Y) seems grammatically fine to me, although a little awkward in some contexts. I do think of X told Z Y as the default – "He told us the truth." For me, the alternative would be used either for emphasis ("He told the truth to us, even if he lied to everyone else.") or because the two elements are complex phrases that would be awkward in the "X told Z Y" formulation. For example, "He told his very convoluted story to everybody within earshot" seems a bit clearer than "He told everybody within earshot his very convoluted story." But as I say, both are quite grammatical to my ear (L1 English, born 1962, raised in NE USA.)

  19. Martha said,

    September 10, 2018 @ 8:12 pm

    I've never heard this construction, but it's weird to my ear, in part because it sounds like being told is her only purpose. "I'm here to clean the windows."

    (Also, can't "tell" be intransitive? "I'm telling!" "I won't tell if you won't tell." I suppose you could say an obligatory "mom" is omitted but implied in both of those examples.)

  20. Bathrobe said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 2:58 am

    @ Michael Watts and Bill Taylor

    Having read what Bill Taylor wrote, I have to agree with you. I was misled by the fact that using "to" can often sound awkward.

    There is, of course, nothing wrong with "to" in the examples that Bill Taylor gave, nor in sentences like "I told my secret to the girl in black".

  21. Andrew Usher said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 7:43 am

    The previous comments have reached the right conclusion that 'tell' is a normal di-transitive verb. One of the curiosities of those verbs is that in the passive the indirect object can be used instead of the direct – as in "I'm here to be told" – even if normally the direct object can't be omitted.

    But it seems that none have concerned themselves with my distinction between the different temporal senses of the phrase. I now feel, after thinking enough about it, that the Hapgood use is simply ungrammatical without a future tense marker, as in I'll be here…, which would be unremarkable. It's that that makes it so jarring.

    I suppose I would like to know where Stoppard got the phrase; the only thing that seems clear is that it wasn't from American use.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 11, 2018 @ 4:16 pm

    The google books corpus turns up the following quote: "And you come here to be told, to be talked at, to be informed, to be persuaded, to be indoctrinated with certain ideas." This from a book dated either 1968 or 1970 from J. Krishnamurti, a mystical fellow who was popular with credulous Westerners of Stoppard's generation. Coincidence?

  23. Bloix said,

    September 12, 2018 @ 1:28 am

    From a British web forum on caravanning (English meaning) a few years back:
    "Yep, very new, I'm thick skinned. It is why I am here to be told."
    https://www.caravantalk.co.uk/community/topic/82065-steady-legs-bending/

  24. Anthony said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 7:28 am

    From the Washington Post:

    Many questions dealt with issues that arose during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing last week. He again stressed that he had not been “read into” the enhanced interrogation practices of the George W. Bush administration…

    Perhaps "read me in" would be a way to ask to be told.

  25. William Berry said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 10:53 pm

    “ . . . a double meaning for purposes of metafictional commentary (i.e., "I exist to be narrated").”

    Bravo!

    That there are four iterations of this (to my ear, at least) rather odd phrase, supports your interpretation, I think.

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