New York Times (July 3) carries an article written by its Op-Ed columnist, Paul Krugman under the title, “Build We Won’t.” in which the author claims;

“In prosperous times, public spending on roads, bridges and so on competes with the private sector for resources. Since 2008, however, our economy has been awash in unemployed workers and capital with no place to go. Putting those idle resources to work building useful stuff should have been a no-brainer. --- Everyone from progressive think tanks to the United States Chamber of Commerce thinks we need good roads. Yet the combination of anti-tax ideology and deficit hysteria that mostly whipped up in an attempt to bully President Obama into spending cuts means that we’re letting our highways, and our future, erode away.


I can understand the point Paul Krugman argues, but I’m not clear with what the caption, “Build we won’t.” means.

I thought it can go like “Build what we will not build. But it doesn’t make sense as a sentence.

How can I parse “Build we won’t”? Is it common to save the word to such a few words in writing, particularly in journalism English?

  • 1
    It's just an inversion of "We won't build" with respect to our infrastructure.
    – Jim
    Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 2:27
  • Jim. In that case, don't you say "Build, (that) we won't"? Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 2:31
  • Cont. Krugman is insisting "We should build." Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 2:34
  • No. I suppose one might hear: "Build? That we won't"- (That we will not do" other than that, I can't make sense of your suggested that.
    – Jim
    Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 2:35
  • 1
    Yes, apparently everyone thinks we should build but: "Yet the combination of anti-tax ideology and deficit hysteria that mostly whipped up in an attempt to bully President Obama into spending cuts means that we’re letting our highways, and our future, erode away." The last sentence is saying, "In spite of that we're not building"
    – Jim
    Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 2:37

2 Answers 2


The phrase “Build We Won’t” is meant to echo (as tragedy or as farce) a once-popular U.S. phrase: “Dig We Must.” The origin of the latter phrase (which in full read either “Dig we must for a greater New York” or “Dig We Must for Growing New York,” depending on which source you believe) appeared on warning signs posted during the 1950s by Consolidated Edison (the gas and electric utility in New York City) about excavation work it was doing to lay or repair pipes or cables. A 1953 issue of The New Yorker provides the following jokey item:

Insight Into the Creative Life Note: The man who invented the phrase "Dig We Must" for the Con Edison Company's street barricades was paying his gas bill when the idea came to him.

Over the next decade or so, the slogan “Dig We Must” became familiar nationwide (I first saw it in an issue of Mad Magazine in the mid-1960s, in a cartoon where a vaguely beatnik-looking character was holding a sign consisting of those three words). The point of the slogan was something like “Progress is inexorable, but it requires investing money and labor in infrastructure improvements. “ And writers and speakers invoked it in connection with everything from the spirit of lunar exploration to the need to assess the effectiveness of War on Poverty programs.

In the title to his op-ed piece, Paul Krugman intends to contrast the can-do spirit of the old Con Ed slogan, with the modern hostility to infrastructure investment, which he says has prevailed throughout the U.S. economy’s attempted recovery from the bursting of the Housing Bubble in 2008. Hence, “Build We Won’t.”

  • This is what I was struggling to remember. I have deleted my flawed answer. Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 10:27

A more conventional way of saying "Build we won't" is "We won't build."

But the verb build is put in front, ahead of the subject "we," for emphasis.

Another way of expressing this is, "Build. We won't."

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