The Grammarphobia Blog

Into the woulds

Q: I was speaking to a Brazilian friend and said something like this: “When I was a boy, I would go to a theater every Saturday and watch two films, a newsreel, a short subject, and a cartoon for 30 cents.” A look of consternation crossed her face. “You mean you can use the conditional ‘would’ in place of ‘used to’?” I told her yes, but I couldn’t tell her why. Can you? Can anybody?

A: We’re surprised that your Brazilian friend found this use of “would” more astounding than seeing those two films and all the rest for 30 cents!

We’ve written before on the blog about the use of “would” to express a tentative question or request. Example: “I would like to borrow that book when you’re finished reading it” instead of “I want to borrow it.”

Your question is different, though. In a sentence like “When I was a boy, I would go to the theater every Saturday,” the word “would” is not the conditional; it’s the simple past tense of the verb “will.”

Here we’re not talking about the “will” that’s an auxiliary (or “helping”) verb to indicate a future action.

This “will” is a verb in itself, meaning to intend or desire. It expresses volition, intention, or voluntary action (as in “Do what you will”).

When “would” is the past tense of “will,” it can have many meanings: wished to, intended to, chose to, was capable of, was determined to, insisted on, was accustomed to, or used to.

And in many of these usages (as when it means wished to or used to), “would” is generally followed by an infinitive: “would go,” “would take,” “would find,” “would eat,” and so on.

(Yes, “go,” “take,” “find,” and “eat” are infinitives despite the absence of the prepositional marker “to.” We’ve written before about these “to”-less infinitives as well as the split infinitive myth.)

Getting back to “would” plus an infinitive, the Oxford English Dictionary cites this example from the works of Daniel Defoe in which “would” is used in the sense of wished to:

“Mrs. Bargrave asked her whether she would drink some Tea” (from A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal, the Next Day after her Death, to One Mrs. Bargrave, 1707).

Now here’s a citation in which it means used to, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair (1848): “The girls would ask her … for a little music, and she would sing her three songs.”

This posting barely scratches the surface of “would,” which is a many-splendored verb with a multitude of uses. But we hope it answers your question.

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