From The Heart of a Broken Story:

I’m a good printer’s assistant, but that’s all I am. One day the printer got sick, and I had to take his place. What a mess I made of things, Miss Lester. No one would take my orders. The typesetters just sort of giggled when I would tell them to get to work.

When I read "One day the printer got sick", I thought the printer got sick in fact, then I read "No one would take my orders", the "would" here suggests it's in a subjunctive mood which implies the printer didn't get sick in fact.

So I got confused about "the printer got sick" is a fact or a fiction? Could anyone please give me some hints about that?

  • 3
    Hi, Sayakiss. I've upvoted StoneyB's answer, but you are clear that there is no question of whether the printer had been sick or not? "Would" is used as the past tense of "will," not as subjunctive. One way to tell is that there had been no if-clauses. Apr 5, 2017 at 10:39
  • @TeacherKSHuang Thanks for that. It's my first time to hear about judging the meaning of the would by there is an if-clause or not.
    – Sayakiss
    Apr 5, 2017 at 11:32
  • 1
    It's not a hard-and-fast rule. I just mention it because "would" used as subjunctive is usually used to describe possibilities and so these will often have an if-clause. Just a tip, not a rule :). Apr 5, 2017 at 11:39
  • 1
    Just to make the entire context of the passage clear, "printer" here is used in an older sense, referring to a person in charge of a printing shop, not referring to a physical printing device. The "printer" manages the entire process, instructing the typesetters and other workers. When the (actual) printer got sick, nobody listened to the assistant who tried to step up and get things done..
    – BradC
    Apr 5, 2017 at 16:20
  • 2
    Answers below. But in addition to that, I'm not sure why you think the word "would" in a later sentence, about different people, would affect the sentence about the printer.
    – Mr Lister
    Apr 5, 2017 at 19:30

1 Answer 1


Yes, the printer got sick. (Or at least the speaker asserts that he in fact got sick.)

Would is used here in the sense 'be willing, consent', with overtones of the sense 'persist (in a particular action or behavior)'.

And it is used its past form not to express conditional or unreal modality but to express tense.


Nobody was willing to take my orders = Everybody refused to take my orders.

  • 1
    So, in your opinion, the printer got sick in fact?
    – Sayakiss
    Apr 5, 2017 at 10:23
  • 9
    @Sayakiss There is nothing in the paragraph you've provided that even hints that the printer did not get sick. Apr 5, 2017 at 16:21
  • 1
    Along these lines, I'd argue that the reason we use "would" here instead of simply saying "No one took my orders" is to imply that not only did everyone refuse the orders that were given, but the assistant feels that any hypothetical order that he/she gave would have been refused as well. I believe it is the latter part that leads us to say "Nobody would take my orders."
    – Cort Ammon
    Apr 5, 2017 at 20:18

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .