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I came across this sentence which seemed strange to me:

Wedding songs turned dirges when my slain would-be was taken to her resting place.

What is the meaning of would-be? Is it grammatically correct? How? Please help?

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    Lexico just gives the 'wannabe' prenominal adjective usage for 'would-be'. But 'intended' is claimed to have undergone nominalisation, 'intended' = 'the person one intends to marry, whether one's fiance/e or not'. It is certainly used alone ('my intended'). But the use of 'would-be' as a nominal does seem unusual. Though in an informal register, especially in lyrics, it would probably not raise too many hackles. Jun 30, 2020 at 11:34

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The example seems to me to be a modern attempt at using archaic language. The OED contains no note of "would-be" in this meaning and I doubt that it has been used in that way.

Although in the context, "would-be" can be easily understood as having a future intent - "the woman who would be my wife" - "would-be" is a nominalised adjective rather than a pure noun = my would-be wife. The commonest current form would be fianceé, - a French past participle adopted as a noun - i.e. the person to whom you are engaged to be married.

Would-be is a combination of the simple past of the verb "will" in its sense of to want; to wish; to intend or shall/should like, and "to be".

A commoner, and informal, nominalised adjective, also verbally derived, for such a woman is "intended", thus: "Wedding songs turned dirges when my slain intended was taken to her resting place."

"Would-be" as an adjective is very old:

OED A. adj. a. Of persons: That would be; wishing to be; posing as.

1300 Graystanes in J. Raine Hist. Dunelmensis Scriptores Tres (1839) 77 Eum [sc. Henry de Luceby] contempserunt, vocantes eum H. walde be Priur. (Him [sc. Henry de Luceby] they had scorned/mocked, calling him "Henry [the] would-be Prior.")

1864 E. B. Pusey Daniel ii. 91 Antiochus was a propagator of false religions, a would-be destroyer of the true.

1889 F. E. Gretton Memory's Harkback 307 Napoleon I..actually bequeathed a legacy..to Cantillon, the would-be assassin of Wellington.

Its use as a noun (a person who would-be) is also old, (but not that old) and usually carries various levels of negative nuance - someone who wants status or social position but whose limited talents will mean that that is very unlikely to be a reality, or someone who is simply aspiring (realistically or not) to that skill or position:

OED

B. n. One who fain would be (something specified or implied).[...]

(b) 1672 A. Marvell Rehearsal Transpros'd i. 238 They are the Politick would-be's of the Clergy.

c1730 A. Ramsay To his Son vi Yet, this let little would-be's know.

1732 London Mag. 1 240 Of all the Fops in Nature, none are so ridiculously contemptible as the Wouldbees.

1782 W. Cowper Conversation in Poems 243 A man that would have foiled at their own play, A dozen would-be's of the modern day.

(Compare the current, informal/colloquial noun and adjective "wannabe".)

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The "would-be" is a noun referring to the woman you would have married if she had not been killed (slain).

A similar word would be "betrothed ".

Yes, the phrase is grammatically correct. It is somewhat unusual, but this does not make it incorrect. Clearly the author is trying to be "poetic".

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  • Perhaps better to have said "my would-be-wife".
    – WS2
    Feb 1, 2020 at 8:51
  • @WS2 - You are correct that "would-be wife" may be easier to understand. However, "would-be wife", while more literal, is also less poetic. The entire sentence you have quoted is poetic in style - not just in the use of terms such as "resting place" instead of "cemetery" but also in the phrasing. This would be why the author chose to use "would-be" instead of a more literal term such "fiance" or "wife-to-be".
    – EWalker
    Feb 1, 2020 at 9:03
  • A similar expression, possibly the inspiration for "would-be", is "bride-to-be". 'The young bride-to-be loses her nerve and flees to a secret hideout.' From Wikipedia
    – Kevin Ryan
    Feb 1, 2020 at 11:09
  • OP and WS2 have doubts about the use of 'would-be' as a noun. An answer must show that the noun usage is licensed; is there a dictionary listing 'would-be' as a noun? Poetic / lyrical D-I-Y usages are non-standard and off-topic on ELU. Jun 30, 2020 at 11:37

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