Verb Review #4: Using Would to Talk About the Past

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The modal would has numerous applications. Here are a few.

One function is to express the idea of habitual action that took place in the past. For example,

“When I was ten years old, I would go to the public library every week with my grandmother.”

In conversation and informal writing, would is often expressed in shortened form as part of a contraction:

When I was a child, I’d hide in my tree house when company came. (I’d = I would.)

When my brothers came looking for me, they’d bring along a treat to tempt me out of hiding. (they’d = they would)

Last year, we’d worry about paying the rent every month, but this year, we have a larger income. (we’d=we would)

Note: ’d is also used to represent the helping verb had: “I’d no idea you were listening.” (I’d=I had.) The difference should be clear from the context.

Would is used in a statement about the past to refer to a future event:

When the storm was at its worst, Shelia trusted that she would be rescued.

When he earned a perfect score on the SAT, he finally believed that he would be accepted by the college of his choice.

Would replaces will or going to in reported speech:

Direct speech: The teacher said, “I will count off for each misspelled word.
Reported speech: The teacher said that he would count off for each misspelled word.

Direct speech: “In case the air conditioning is too cold,” Joan said, “I’m going to take a jacket to the movies.”
Reported Speech: Anticipating that the air conditioning might be too cold, Joan said she would take a jacket to the movies.

The negative “would not” is used to talk about past refusals or failed attempts:

He wanted to sell the house, but his wife would not consent.

Gidget said she was late to work because her car wouldn’t start.

In a narrative, would is used as a foreshadowing tool:

As she drank her morning coffee, she had no inkling that this ordinary Monday would be her last day on earth.

The business traveler berated the airline agent, little dreaming that the infuriating delay would save his life.

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1 thought on “Verb Review #4: Using Would to Talk About the Past”

  1. Just my 2 cents’ worth re: “He wanted to sell the house, but his wife would not consent.”
    This reflects the past, but a slight change would reflect future. “He wants to sell the house, but she would never consent.” Meaning, not in a million years. The “would never” could be used for past as well, in an ongoing way (“He wanted to sell the house but she would never consent.”).

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