language nerd: will

This is a discussion I keep wanting to have with students when we use future simple language tense patterns. However, due to the fact that future simple is pretty basic-level stuff, I always have to bite my tongue.

“Do as you will.”

That can either mean “do what you will inevitably do” (because it is a definite future event, the simple future) or “do that which you will to do” (will in the sense of “wish”). To me it’s interesting to examine the relationship between the verb “to will” and its use as mode for discussing the future.

Like I said, nerdy.

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2 responses to “language nerd: will

  1. What You Will?

    I would guess that the tension in meaning is a textual manifestation of tension in what free will really means… and as such, not as easily resolvable as one would.

    Since “must” exists, I would be tempted to use “will” in the above sense when I’m implying a total free choice “Do as you will,” as opposed to implying a total or partial constriction of free will, “Do as you must.”

    I’m also a little unsure that one can use “will” in the setting of an action that’s already decided upon (unless there’s a chance to change it –> free-will). i.e. One cannot use “Do as you will” in place of “Do what is inevitable” without highlighting the agent’s ability to swerve her course?

    As You Like It.

    — Matt M.

  2. In addition:

    It seems to me that the ambiguity rests in differentiating “will” and “must.” Even though it’s absolutely clear when a subject to which we don’t attribute a mind “wills” something, perhaps it’s a benign anthropomorphism buried into the language?

    For instance, when I write, “The sun will stop shining in a million years,” the sense is absolutely clear, and how do I differentiate it from “The sun must stop shining in a million years”?

    My distinction between subjects with and without mind rests solely on analogy from use of “will” as a simple verb. “I will it to be so” makes perfect sense (although one could argue its truth). “The sun wills it to be so” is an anthropomorphism.

    If there is an indefinite subject (“This will mean disaster to us all”), I would argue that it begs the question.

    Luckily we aren’t theologians, or we’d also have to endlessly circulate whether “God will darken the firey orb,” makes any grammatical sense.

    …but all that being said, even if one were to try to restrict “wills” to subjects with mind and “musts” to subjects without a known mind, it would result in a baffling attempt to determine what is really contingent and what is not, or the creation of many — probably artificial — distinctions, which the use of “will” in any and every situation neatly evades.

    Great grammatical ambivalence. Thanks.

    — Matt M.

    P.S. My apologies if this posts twice; my rental computer will be messing up aplenty,

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