I am writing an essay, and I am confused about some tenses that I have to use:

For a while, the situation seems to improve, but Mary decides to finally kill herself (shortly after that). However, at the last moment she realizes that she would/will leave her daughter behind who therefore, would/will have to grow up without her mother. Mary “solves” this problem by going upstairs into Elizabeth’s room murdering the baby by slitting its throat.

I don't know which one is the right one. I think it's would because it's a probability in the future. She hasn't done it, and won't in the story...?!

1 Answer 1


It is not so much the wills and woulds as the "solves" that makes it unclear which eventualities are hypothetical. In the context of present-form narrative, the indicative implies an actual eventuality, which in turn implies that a) Mary perseveres in her determination to kill herself and b) the consequent murder is also actualized.

If that is the case, either will or would is OK. Irrealis would implies a momentary hesitation while Mary considers the possible consequences, while realis will signals that Mary's determination to kill herself does not flag and she regards the consequence as inevitable until she comes up with a "solution".

But your afterword and the original form of your question indicate that Mary's resolution is weakened by her realization. If that is the case, then you should signal that with irrealis would and should recast "solves" as a hypothetical:

She realizes that she would leave her daughter behind, who would (have to) grow up without a mother. She might solve this problem by going upstairs and murdering her daughter . . . But that's no solution . . .

Note that the have to does not affect the reality of the clause: it merely introduces a layer of epistemicity to the modality.

Note, too, that the -ing forms are not affected in either case: these are gerund-participles, non-finite forms which are not marked for either tense or modality.

I see now that you inserted (das is doch keine Lösung) in order to cast "solves" as hypothetical. I'm afraid that doesn't work in English: the verbform/construction has to "agree" with the modality of the clause.

I'm not real comfortable with it in German either; but that may be a deficiency in my understanding of German idiom.

  • No, you are right. It´s the same in German. It would be awkward to do that.It was my fault. It actually was a note to me. I put that in there to remind myself of something. It was not supposed to be there. I didn´t think of deleting it before posting!! I just meant to say that she is desperate and makes the wrong move by killing the infant. That´s why I used "exclamation" marks. In this case I would choose "will" instead of would... But can you (or have) to say would have to grow up? will/would/would have are all conditional constructions here,right? Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 15:30
  • Can I not use the exclamation marks at all to indicate that this term is not really fitting here meaning that she does something really weird (without the accidentally inserted German phrase of mine)? This would work perfectly in German. Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 15:34
  • That have is not an isolated auxiliary (which would take a PaPpl as complement, and would mark the clause with a past time reference which doesn't suit your present-tense narration) but a component of the construction have to + Inf = müssen. . . . Yes, she might "solve" the problem would be fine; we call that pointing "scare quotes". Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 15:47
  • I am afraid I don´t understand your comment concerning "have/ "have+to + inf". I originally intended to write "would" but as it was explained here that will not work. Therefore I have to choose "will". I intend to say that in the case of killing herself the daughter will (have to?) grow up without a mother...I always think that it has to be "will +have to" for some reason?! Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 16:00
  • Perhaps think of it as sie wird/werde mutterlos aufwachsen (müssen)? Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 16:15

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