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Understanding and Using Modal Verbs (#32), by Dennis Oliver


Modal Verbs #32:
Individual Modal Verbs


The English modal verbs are often challenging for learners
of English. This happens for many reasons, including both
grammar and meaning.

In this Hint, we'll continue to look at would.



Would (#5)


The modal auxiliary would (negative would not, which is
often contracted to
wouldn't) has several uses, among them
making a kind of "artificial past" for
will in indirect (reported)
speech, making polite requests, showing the meaning "want"
with the common expression
would like, and in making
unreal conditional sentences in present or future time.

Another use for would is in referring to repeated past
(but not past states or conditions). When would
is used in this special way, a time adverbial is needed to
make it clear that the time is past.


When I was a boy, my grandmother would
tell me stories.

(In the past, my grandmother told me stories
many times.)

In my last job, my boss
would often give me
special assignments.

(My last boss gave me special assignments
many times.)

During Sam's years in the university, he
often stay up all night studying for exams.

(When Sam studied in the university, he stayed up
all night studying for exams many times.)

When Chuck's parents were alive, they
call him almost every weekend.

(In the past, Chuck's parents called him many times
during weekends.)



Special Notes:


When would shows repeated past actions, used to is
also possible (and does not require a past time adverbial):

My grandmother used to tell me stories.
My boss
used to give me special assignments.
used to stay up all night studying for exams.
Chuck's parents
used to call him almost every weekend.


Used to may also show past states or conditions,
would may not:


not this:


I used to live in Los Angeles.

*I would live in Los Angeles.



not this:


Mr. Jackson's hair is now white.
It used to be dark brown.

Mr. Jackson's hair is now white.
*It would be dark brown.



not this:


Alice used to have a Mercedes Benz.

*Alice would have a Mercedes Benz.

Important: In the examples above, live, be, and
have show states or conditions, not actions.


Next: more on modal verbs

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