I have come across the following clause in "The Corrections" by Franzen:

It would happen that the First and Second Notices were underground somewhere.

I am not sure how to interpret this construction. How does it compare to constructions such as "It happened that...", "It could happen that..." or the simpler "The First and Second Notices were underground somewhere"?

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  • I think we need more context: what the heck are "First and Second Notices"? Are we meant to read this with emphasis on the "would", i.e. is Franzen being sarcastic about something? (Again, we'd need to know what the heck these capital-N Notices are to begin to assign any meaning to the sentence.) I just noticed you labeled the quote a "clause": is this actually a part of a longer sentence? If yes, what is the entire sentence? – Marthaª Nov 13 '12 at 22:40
  • @Marthaª: The relevant passage is in a link under my answer, but trust me - the meaning of "Notices" (or indeed, "underground") aren't in the least relevant to the either meaning or the stylistic acceptability of starting a sentence with "It would happen that ". – FumbleFingers Nov 13 '12 at 22:47

More common usages are...

"Sometimes it would happen [that something would occur]".

There are also plenty of instances of "often it would happen" (or even oftentimes...). Stylistically it's slightly "unusual" to start the sentence with just OP's "unqualified" version - I can't see anything inherently wrong, but it does sound even more "rustic/dated" to me than the standard versions.

OP's alternatives wouldn't convey the same meaning. The original doesn't say the Notices were underground on any specific occasion being referenced - it just says that on any given occasion, they might be.

  • Thanks! I understand now. Franzen confused me when he abruptly switched from referencing to two specific first and second notices to referencing to first and second notices in general. – Missing Bob Nov 13 '12 at 22:29
  • @Missing Bob: I have absolutely no idea what those "Notices" are, or what it would mean for them to be "underground" sometimes. Nor indeed, whether the First and Second Notices on any given day are still "the same" Notices on a different day. But I don't think that makes any difference to the meaning of the "it would happen" construction. – FumbleFingers Nov 13 '12 at 22:34
  • ... belay that! I found the passage, wherein I see it's preceded by a threatening Third Notice from a medical lab that demanded immediate payment of $0.22 while simultaneously showing an account balance of $0.00 carried forward. The word "Notice" (and the capitalisation thereof) is being used rather quirkily. I couldn't really endorse that text as "typical modern-day English" - it seems somewhat "literary", and maybe a bit "poetic" in overall tone. – FumbleFingers Nov 13 '12 at 22:40
  • 1
    It could also be a rueful statement, expressing annoyance at the obstinacy or inopportune nature of fate in this particular circumstance. – Robusto Nov 13 '12 at 22:41
  • @Robusto: Possibly. But look at the very next sentence: She might suspect, perhaps, the family-room closet, but the governing force, in the person of Alfred, would be watching a network newsmagazine at a volume thunderous enough to keep him awake, and he had every light in the family room burning, and there was a non-negligible possibility that if she opened the closet door a cascade of catalogues and House Beautifuls and miscellaneous Merrill Lynch statements would come toppling and sliding out, incurring Alfred's wrath. Now that's some sentence! – FumbleFingers Nov 13 '12 at 22:43

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