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I'd like to know what "would" exactly means here? Please help me I couldn't figure it out no matter how much I tried. Thanks a lot.

The Wright brothers didn't become distraught when a skeptic would deride their work.

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3 Answers 3

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Would, the past tense of will, in part of its rôle as a modal verb, is used sometimes to describe repeated or habitual past actions. That is its use here. Compare Gray's An elegy, wrote in a country church-yard, from 1751:

There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
His listless length at noontide wou'd he stretch

Would is most often used to indicate future obligation, intention, or prediction (I would do that). That is the epistemic use; but would still retains some of its original sense as the past tense of will, and partakes of will's original meaning of want or desire.

As John Lawler puts it here, this is would used in its function as "as the past tense of a deontic habitual use of will." It is the "deontic sense of would; it involves desire and *will*ingness."

Thus, the sentence means:

The Wright brothers didn't become distraught when a skeptic habitually and repeatedly desired to deride their work.

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This sentence can be reworded as the following:

The Wright brothers didn't become distraught when a skeptic derided their work.

From this, we can see that "would" here means that the following verb is in past tense. It can sound more natural and/or elegant at times, which accounts for its prevalence.

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Would in your sentence is used to suggest a intention in a context that refers to the past:

  • (also 'd) used to refer to an intention from the point of view of the past:

    • He said he would always love her .

    • They promised that they would help.

    • There was nobody left who would (= was willing to) do it.

    • *I asked him to move his car but he said he wouldn't (= he refused).

Cambridge Dictionary

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