I was taught "would" has a value of past tense, like in :

When I was a child, my father would take me to the park after school

But the more I hear it and use it, the more it "feels" like conditional and I think of it more as a "would" than as a "used to", as in

I used to take the bus but I walk now.

In my language both translate to the same tense, so our teachers pretty much told us "just think of it as a past tense and not a conditional". Now I kind of see the "logic" for there to be a conditional in those sentences.

Native speakers, do you feel like you're using conditional or a past tense ? Or neither ?

  • Would can be used to express uncertainty and conditions. "If i had a hammer, I'd (would) hammer in the morning." Indeed in this case, you never had a hammer (past) nor do you have one now (present).
    – MorganFR
    Oct 13, 2016 at 12:10
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    Would is regularly used for both of these possible meanings, and can be used in several other ways. Consult a good dictionary like this one: en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/would
    – JavaLatte
    Oct 14, 2016 at 6:23
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    To answer your question: in your first example. a native speaker does not feel that they are using conditional at all. Would has two distinct meanings, and we don't mix them up.
    – TonyK
    Nov 14, 2016 at 22:30

1 Answer 1


One of the uses of the verb would is to talk about habitual action that took place in the past.

OED says of will:

27. (Cf. 8.) Was (were) accustomed to; used to.
1470–85 Malory Morte d'Arthur ix. xxxvii. 399 Euery day syr Palomydes wold repreue sir Tristram of old hate betwixe them.
1847 Thackeray Vanity Fair (1848) xxi. 181 The girls would ask her..for a little music, and she would sing her three songs.

When native speakers use would as in your example, we are using it as both a conditional and past tense, and this is as it should be, since would is the past tense of will. The condition is fulfilled in the past, and it is will's original implication of intention that provides the sense that the action is habitual.

I am venturing far from grammar here, but perhaps one of the reasons for your observation:

"the more I hear it and use it, the more it "feels" like conditional..."

...is that you are beginning to think in English, and that some of historic sense of the verb will is starting to influence that thinking. Consider that if a British person in 1594 CE said:

Husband wants me home, but I would go to market...

...she was expressing the thought: I firmly intend to go to market. Would is not just an auxiliary that puts go in a future tense or makes the "going" conditional. Even today, when we use would to talk about the past:

She's gone, but in the past, I would gather flowers for her...

...the statement has a greater affect than:

She's gone, but in the past, I used to gather flowers for her...

Used to merely expresses that the action was habitual and in the past. Would implies also that the speaker actively desired the action in preference to other actions.

Historical note

Originally, this usage of would to describe action in the past might also imply some of the original sense of will as intending or desiring, as in one of the OED's earliest citations above:

1470–85 Malory Morte d'Arthur ix. xxxvii. 399 Euery day syr Palomydes wold repreue sir Tristram of old hate betwixe them.

In this passage, Malory describes the imprisoned nobleman Palomydes and his daily reminders to his fellow prisoner Tristram of the enmity between them; yet, when Palomydes sees that Tristram is ill, he comforts him instead:

But when syr Palomydes sawe the fallynge of sekenesse of syr Tristram, thenne was he heuy for hym / and comforted him in alle the best wyse he coude.

The use of wold here describes both past action and Palomydes's will to continue haranguing Tristram: and then, seeing that Tristram is ill, he no longer desires to remind him of their past conflict. This sense would have been clear to a reader in Malory's time. Malory could have used the simple past repreued here, but may well have chosen wold repreue for this reason.

As centuries passed, this sense of intention or desire in most such usages was lost, and in most modern uses like the one in this question would connotes only used to.

  • 1
    I disagree with your last part : one could say "When I was I college sometimes I would cry while doing my homework", but there is no intention or will to cry, at all. Oct 14, 2016 at 7:57
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    @TeleportingGoat Exactly: My father would take us to the park even though he didn't want to. Would here does not refer to willingness. Oct 14, 2016 at 12:18
  • @TeleportingGoat maybe would has more than one meaning, and more than one use? The OED has at least 27 different meanings. I think P.E. Dant was explaining the meaning of would as it is used in your sentence.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 14, 2016 at 20:31
  • @TeleportingGoat "A trace" is how I originally phrased it, and I certainly should have added "sometimes" and included an example or two. Not every usage implies willingness, and not every speaker uses the verb in that way, and in modern usage it is usually merely another way to say used to. See edits... Oct 14, 2016 at 22:49

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