We've met the enemy, and that would be in the modal auxiliary, Bob

« previous post | next post »

From yesterday's editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the conviction of a local political boss, Vince Fumo, on 137 corruption-related charges:

There was an unindicted co-conspirator in the case against Fumo. That would be the city that spawned him, took what he delivered and then pretended to be shocked, shocked at the unsavory details of how he manipulated the process.

That, of course, would be Philadelphia. That, of course, would be us.

The editorial's headline is "We've met the enemy, and he is us".

Linguistically speaking, this all started in 1813,  when Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry famously wrote to General William Henry Harrison reporting a victory in the Battle of Lake Erie:

We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.

The quotation is often amended to "… and he is ours", perhaps due to prescriptive nervousness about "singular they".  In particular, when Walt Kelly invented his now-even-more-famous variant, it was in the form

We have met the enemy and he is us.

The Wikipedia entry for Walt Kelly similarly singularizes the original to fit:

Perhaps the most famous quotation … is, "We have met the enemy and he is us" (a paraphrase of Commodore Perry's famous "We have met the enemy and he is ours" from the War of 1812). The earliest form of this expression appeared in his introduction to The Pogo Papers (1953); it was used much later in the comic strip and as the title of a collection of strips.

I'm not sure exactly what the context of the original use in 1953 was, though I think it had something to do with McCarthyism,  the message being roughly that some reactions to an external threat can become more dangerous than the threat itself. These days, the best-known cartoon versions of the Pogo catch-phrase are the ones from strips commemorating Earth Day 1970 and 1971 (click on the images for larger versions), where the threat is internal and the response is seen as entirely benign:

There are hundreds of further adaptations of this phrase out there, as a quick web search will show. "We (or sometimes I or You) have met the enemy and he is Y" takes on values of  Y = you, me, Republican, Democrats, each other, my stomach, Alabama, the Tax Collector, Crabgrass, gay, awesome, Force Structure, some fat guy in Florida, strange, Wall Street,

The plural version "… and they are Z" comes in flavors of Z =  Partly Right, Armed with Pennies, The Tombstone Militia, Earmarks, illiterate, GUI's, curs, weird, annoying,

But the Inky's editorial makes a different sort of modification: from "he is us" to "that would be the city that spawned him", before working back to "that, of course, would be Philadelphia" and finally  "that, of course, would be us."

The basic reason for this internal modification, I think, is stylistic. It would be confusing to follow "There was an unindicted co-conspirator" with  "He is the city that  spawned him"; and "They are the city that spawned him" is even worse. Choices like "It is …" or "That is …" are problematic, in part because they lead the reader down the garden path of common constructions with pleonastic it or summative that, like "It is obvious that …" or "That is why …"

So the editorial writer chose the fashionable "that would be …" construction, which is often deployed these days as a way of answering a (real or rhetorical) question, just as in this passage. Adding "of course" to the second two repetitions  isolates the repetitions of "that" syntactically, conveying in writing an emphasis that might have been delivered prosodically in speech.

At this point, in the universe of evoked associations, the naval hero and the comic-strip possum meet an urban legend that was discussed last year in a guest post by Larry Horn ("That would be in the modal auxiliary, Bob", 1/9/2008).

[I've ignored several other linguistic allusions in the mere 50 words quoted from this densely intertextual editorial: the "shocked, shocked" reference to Casablanca, and "unindicted co-conspirator", which for many people traces back to Watergate.]


  1. acilius said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 9:18 am

    That's an interesting specimen of rhetoric. Thanks for posting about it!

  2. nicole said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    The quotation is often amended to "… and he is ours", perhaps due to prescriptive nervousness about "singular they".

    Interesting. I read this not as a singular-they construction, but as a construction of the type "The team are on their way to Spain"–correct in British English but very off-sounding to Americans. (Can't remember what this is called at the moment.)

    "The enemy" in this case would be the same type of noun as things like "team," "committee," "band," etc. Is there a way we can tell if this is the case as opposed to singular they?

    [(myl) You're right that there's no "singular they" here, if that phrase is taken to refer to cases of reference to grammatically singular indefinites like "someone", "no one", "a visitor", etc.. And you're right that the number-related issue is the plural pronoun they referring back to the (singular) definite collective noun "the enemy": there's a (mainly American?) concern that "A collective noun should not be treated as both singular and plural in the same construction" (though since there is no verb agreement with "the enemy", the Educational Testing Service probably wouldn't really require its testees to correct Commodore Perry's English). I perceive all this as a symptom of a general uneasiness about areas where semantic and syntactic number drift apart; and this sub-syndrome doesn't (as far as I know) have a short name. I probably should have written "nervousness about collective-noun antecedents with plural pronouns", or something like that. Although in fact, the two collections of issues overlap at the edges, since the "singular they" cases include some where the antecedent is grammatically definite, e.g. "the visitor left their fingerprints on the doorknob", and nouns like "enemy" are often ambiguous as to whether they are collective or not. ]

  3. Dan T. said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    There's also Clay Shirky's famous article, A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy.

    The Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" relates to this theme as well (though I'm not sure if it actually uses any variant of the phrase).

  4. Bloix said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    The "that would be" as used in the newspaper quotation is, of course, used incorrectly. The point of the "would be" construction is that it implies doubt on the part of the speaker, who is making an assumption that appears but may not be correct. It's current, arch usage is sarcastic- the speaker pretends to a doubt that s/he doesn't actually feel. But there's no pretended doubt in the quote from the Inquirer. The "would be" construction appears to be merely a tick.

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    Bloix: The point of the "would be" construction is that it implies doubt on the part of the speaker.

    So you say. But the facts appear to be otherwise. If we search a text corpus for "that would be", we find that the vast majority of instances express completely doubt-free evaluations of hypothetical situations — here are the first few hits from one search:

    I want to be there Sunday night, and I think that would be the most incredible feeling …
    Damn, that would be hot.
    That would be huge.
    That would be a sharp increase from 2007, …
    … that would be a big plus for the consumer.

    Some people seem to have generalized this use, which typically presents a strong evaluative reaction to a hypothetical situation, to serve as a way of juicing up any response to a question or a problem:

    Q: Do you need some money?
    A: That would be a big help.
    Q: We need someone who can use a soldering iron.
    A: That would be Bill.
    Q: Is X here?
    A: That would be me.

    Examples with from the web, involving explicit or implicit rhetorical questions:

    Who is the best qualified caretaker you ask? Well that would be none other than County Commissioner Adam Levine.
    Neither of us are bad cops, but if you are asking who is firmest, that would be me.
    Obama needs a candidate who has experience in foreign policy and who is well-known. That would be Richardson.
    If you would like to use this pedal for guitar, do yourself favor and buy the one that is made for guitars – that would be the FV-500H.

    There are certainly subtleties here — the implicit questions and answers that tie a discourse together can be seen as creating and resolving hypothetical situations, for example — but I don't see any evidence that there is any sarcastically-pretended doubt in any of this, from beginning to end.

    And as for the question of whether the modal is "used incorrectly" here, what do you mean? That this construction reflects some changes in the language over the past 100 years, and perhaps even the past 20 or 30? That you don't like it? You certainly can't mean that this usage is not found in published texts written and edited by professionals.

    (And by the way, as Melvyn Quince just reminded me with a grin, the spelling of tic in your final sentence ("The 'would be' construction appears to be merely a tick.") really is incorrect, at least by contemporary American standards. See here or here.)

  6. Zubon said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    Also contra Bloix, "That would be [me/her/the CEO]," is a construction from which I infer assumed ignorance on the part of the listener, not the speaker. You have asked a question to which the answer is right in front of you.

    "What idiot made that decision?""That would be you."

  7. Breffni said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    I wouldn't go along with Bloix's claim that the instance under discussion is wrong (it seems perfectly good to me), but I agree that this kind of use of "would" retains at least a hint of hedging about it. Mark's examples, except "That would be a big help", do strike me as tinged with a facetious or playful show of tentativeness. I don't know if it's possible to adjudicate on reactions like this, though. Maybe it's become sufficiently common for that rhetorical colouring to have faded in US usage, or maybe I'm imagining it.

  8. Rick S said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

    Prof. Liberman's examples don't all seem to match this construction to me. Curiously, they divide into two groups, the second starting with "That would be Bill". The first group, to me, seems to consist of conditional responses to hypothetical propositions (you could append if it actually were to happen to any of them).

    In contrast, the second group doesn't seem to have any conditionality at all; they seem like straight-up assertions: That is Bill/That is me/The best qualified caretaker is County Commissioner Adam Levine, etc.

    I take this latter "would be" constuction to have a pragmatic purpose, possibly to assert the obviousness of the answer while avoiding calling the questioner stupid for not seeing it. It's as if to say, "the answer is X, which you would know if you thought more deeply about it/had more information (but it's not your fault that you didn't)." I think this interpretation matches the second group of examples well, but the first group not at all.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

    To my ear, the usage in "That would be a big help" or, e.g., "More tea? Yes, that would be lovely." is doing something markedly different from the usage in "that would be me" or snowclones of "that would be X, Bob." The first is "tentative" by way of being socially deferential as a mode of politeness — not appearing to take the offer, however unconditional in fact, for granted. The same is true if used in the inquiry rather than the response. "It would be nice if you were free for dinner on Saturday" seems slightly more deferential/polite than "hey, whatcha doin' for dinner on Saturday?" Or compare "It would be a big help if you could lend me some money" to "Couldja lend me some money?"

    For the second usage, I agree with Zubon that it's a way of signalling here's the answer to your question while acknowledging that the answer should not necessarily have been quite as obvious to the questioner as it is to the person providing the answer.

    Usages like "that would be a big plus" feel like still a third category, because there the situation being described (in the examples given) really seems hypothetical or conditional, whereas in the first two categories the loveliness of more tea or the answer being what it in fact is aren't really conditional, so the syntax is accomplishing some sort of non-obvious pragmatic task.

  10. Faldone said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    The Walt Kelly quotation is used in the introduction to The Pogo Papers, which takes place during the final days of the 1952 campaign and into 1953. The book includes the introduction of the Joseph McCarthy character, Simple J. Malarkey. The quotation, however, does not seem to refer specifically to him, but rather to all of us in general. The whole sentence is:

    Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.

  11. Noetica said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    Quite so, Rick S. Of course various uses of "would be" would have to be distinguished here.

    Concerning tic versus tick, yes: tic is standard, but OED has an entry "tick  n.5":

    … 2. A whim, a fancy; a peculiar habit or notion, an idiosyncrasy.1900 ‘Sarah Grand’ Babs ix, She's got some tick in her head about being firm with me.

  12. Bloix said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    Mark is clearly referencing two different usages of "that would be." First, we have the literal meaning, in which something that may or may not happen "would be" good, bad, whatever. This is the literal, standard, non-colloquial usage. "That would be hot." "That would be a big help." This is no different from, "If we left now, we would arrive at noon." Sometimes, the conditional is merely politeness. " "Would you like some more?" "Yes I would (if you choose to let me have some)", not "Do you want some more?" "Yes, I do (so give it here)."

    The next step, I think, is the usage that implies "I'm pretty sure that." "Who's knocking at the door?" "(Unless I'm mistaken,) that would be Bill." I'm guessing, of course, but all the non-literal uses we're discussing may be extensions of a usage that originated when the "unless I am mistaken" was dropped as being implied, and therefore did not need to be stated expressly.

    This is often a matter of politeness rather than actual doubt. We often express doubt when in actuality we don't feel any doubt. "I would think that that's enough" means "I think that that's enough," but the "would" is there to be polite. Or sarcastic – the speaker, who is really exasperated, is expressing his exasperation via a pretence of politeness.

    The English are particularly fond of this usage, as where the speaker expresses doubt for the very purpose of communicating that he is not in any doubt at all. "What's that bird?" "Ah, that would be a red throated thrush," because to say what you know without expressing doubt would be to show off, and thefore rude. Some of Mark's examples are like this – "that would be the FV-500H" means "in my opinion this is the right pedal." And "that would be me" is merely classic false modesty. (For amusing examples of both real modesty and false modesty, see, http://www.thatwouldbeme.net/2008/04/that-would-be-me/).

    The next step would be – "would be" here is communicating that I'm hypothesizing – the next step would be the expression of doubt facetiously. "Who's the idiot who made that decision?" "That would be you." "Who's in charge here?" "That would be me." The idea being that there's no possibility of doubt except in the mind of the hearer. That is Zubon's example.

    As often happens with facetious usages, this one has with overuse lost the cheekiness. As in Mark's example,

    "We need someone who can use a soldering iron."
    "That would be Bill."

    This is a colloquial usage. You would not write in a formal setting, "The heir to the throne would be Charles," unless you meant, "The heir to the throne would be Charles if his older brother Sid were to die." The web uses Mark gives are attempts at a conversational style in writing, which is standard on the web and, more and more, in newspapers.

    And the next step is an "ironic" usage, in which the "would be" is intended to communicate that what is being said is obvious and that both the speaker and the listener know that it's obvious.

    The reason I wrote that the Inquirer quotation mis-uses the "would be" construction is that it's also using another rhetorical device that doesn't mesh. The author says that there was an unidicted co-conspirator at the trial. He doesn't mean this literally; he means it metaphorically. He intends shock us with a rhetorical flight of fancy. "We are all guilty!" he declares. He is telling us something we don't already know. He wants to pierce our complacency.

    But the "would be" construction implies that the status of the City of Philadelphia as an undicted co-conspirator is so obvious that it need not be pointed out. The whole point of this ironic use of "would be" is to reinforce complacency.

    So in one sentence, the author is trying to startle us into perceiving a deep truth that we did not previously recognize, even as he (unintentionally?) implies that the deep truth is so obvious that anyone who didn't see it is a moron.

    Or perhaps what he means is that the metaphorical status of Philadelphia as a conspirator is so obvious that we all know it already. If that's what he's saying, he's gone one rhetorical device to far for easy comprehension.

    That's what I meant when I said the usage was incorrect. Perhaps I should have said that his rhetoric didn't work, but I then I don't always review and revise my blog comments.

    PS- Yes, I meant "tic." Blog comments are full of mispellings, many of them mine.

  13. Mark F. said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 9:21 pm

    Bloix — I like the "unless I'm mistaken" hypothesis. It feels right. But you say about the original columnist, "Or perhaps what he means is that the metaphorical status of Philadelphia as a conspirator is so obvious that we all know it already. If that's what he's saying, he's gone one rhetorical device to far for easy comprehension." I thought that was exactly what he was trying to say. Whether it's hard to comprehend is tough to say, but it didn't seem too bad to me.

  14. Bill Walderman said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 7:54 am

    I don't think the "that would be" construction was necessarily selected to avoid the awkwardness of choosing a subject for the "city of that spawned him" sentence because the writer could simply have framed the passage as follows:

    "There was an unindicted co-conspirator in the case against Fumo: the city that spawned him, took what he delivered and then pretended to be shocked, shocked at the unsavory details of how he manipulated the process.

    "That, of course, is Philadelphia. That, of course, is us."

    Rather, the "that would be" construction is used to coyly inch up to the revelation that the unindicted co-conspirator is "us." "That would be" heightens the irony.

  15. Nigel Greenwood said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    Cf the use of another modal in such questions "And who might you be?" That would be a rather disdainful & patronizing expression in British English.

  16. Aaron Davies said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 12:28 am

    the philly papers seem to have been engaged in something of an orgy of self-hate for the past few years, judging by what i've seen on line, so perhaps to his primary audience, it is supposed to be obvious

  17. bread & roses said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    When my mother told me about "we have me the enemy, and he is us"- in order to explain the Pogo cartoon posted above, which was posted on our family bulletin board- she said that Pogo was playing off the words of the runner from Marathon. She said he ran his marathon distance (now I can't remember if he ran from Marathon or to it) to deliver his message- "we have met the enemy, and he is ours"- and then collapsed and died.

    [(myl) That was Pheidippides, and what he legendarily said was "Νενικήκαμεν", which is the active indicative first person plural of νικάω, "to conquer, vanquish, win".]

    Sigh. I thought Pogo was using such classical allusions, and now I find he was just referencing some American general. The heroes of my youth grow ever smaller.

    [(myl) Perry was actually a Commodore, which is a naval rank; and if we believe this account by Teddy Roosevelt, he was perhaps a worthier role model than Phedippides, at least if you admire building a fleet out of nothing, and then winning an important naval battle after having your ship essentially shot to pieces by the enemy forces, with 83 out of 103 crewmen dead or wounded.]

  18. Bloix said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    This week's New Yorker contains an article by John McPhee about lacrosse. At one point, McPhee jumps into a taxi on his way to a game being played at University College Dublin:

    "To a kindly, graying driver, I said, "U.C.D." And where would I be going at U.C.D.? he asked. It's a great sprawling place, more than 300 acres … 'I don't know… I'm supposed to be at a lacrosse match. Can you help me?'… At the first stoplight, he said, 'And what might lacrosse be?'"

    Here the conditional (where would I being going?, what might lacrosse be?) is being used to indicate Irish English. McPhee is doing this with a light hand (he doesn't write "sure, it's a great, sprawling place') but he's doing it nonetheless.

    So it occurs to me that perhaps the use of the conditional in questions might originate among Irish speakers, as a demonstration of politeness, perhaps.

  19. Nigel Greenwood said,

    March 23, 2009 @ 7:12 pm

    [(myl) That was Pheidippides, and what he legendarily said was "Νενικήκαμεν", which is the active indicative first person plural of νικάω, "to conquer, vanquish, win".]

    It's rather pleasing that Νενικήκαμεν is still used allusively in Modern Greek. This form (the perfect tense) is no longer used in Greek (the modern Demotic equivalent would be νικήσαμε); but Νενικήκαμεν is often encountered in headlines celebrating eg football (ποδόσφαιρο) victories. One notable online headline read Νενικήκαμεν, από Μπους, referring to Bush's notorious "Mission accomplished" boast aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

  20. Nigel Greenwood said,

    March 24, 2009 @ 6:44 am

    [(myl) That was Pheidippides …

    Wouldn't that be That would be Pheidippides …?

  21. [ni:v] said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 8:42 am

    @Bloix I am interested by your suggestion that this construction originates among speakers of Irish English. Certainly, politeness is a fairly central feature of Irish English and the culture in general – many Irish people find it difficult to even accept a compliment for fear of appearing conceited.

    A: that's a lovely dress you're wearing!
    B: ah this old thing? Sure I've had this for ages!
    A: You got your hair done – it looks lovely!
    B: Ah sure I needed to get it done, it was in bad shape!)

    There are a number of features of Irish English that undoubtedly stem from Irish constructions, but I can't find any evidence for this particular one having roots in Irish. In that case, it may, as you said, have evolved as a way of showing politeness.

    As an aside, I was surprised to read that there was a lacrosse game being played at UCD….it certainly is not a common sport in Ireland!

  22. Anton Sherwood said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

    I have yet another hypothesis about "that would be Bill" — that it originated in recasting the question as a hypothetical: "If one were to seek the person in charge of framistans, the person sought would be Bill."

RSS feed for comments on this post