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In the sentence "the best choice would be...", what does "would" mean in the following sentence?

Questioner: Is this sentence correct? 'Finished eating, we went to the zoo'.

Answer: I'm afraid that is not correct. The phrase 'Finished eating' is a participle phrase with a passive meaning and you need an active meaning here. The best choice would be 'Having finished eating...'.

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Would is used to convey the conditional mood. The conditional mood conveys some sort of dependency on a condition. A more obvious example:

If I had any sense, I would come in out of the rain.

In this case, it is fine to say The best choice is "Having finished eating ..." as well. Using the conditional conveys a sense of If you were to say this again, the best choice would be "Having finished eating ..."

Conditionals are often used in a sense like this, to "soften" the statement a bit. This is a good short overview of various forms of the conditional.

Now, would doesn't always denote conditional mood. It is also the past tense of will:

They asked me to work late tomorrow, and I won't (will not) do it.
They asked me to work late yesterday, and I wouldn't (would not) do it.

Would is also used in a past sense to convey being in the habit of doing something (similar to used to):

When I lived in Poughkeepsie, I would/used to take a walk every morning at eight.

There are other meanings, and you can see more of them here.

  • Thank you. But there is no conditional (if) in the above. The speaker directly uses "would". Could you explain? I'm a liltle confised. – whitekrystal Apr 3 '18 at 8:02
  • Sure. The conditional (if) is implied. Again, saying "would" conveys the meaning "if you were to say this again..." This happens rather often. Another example: "I would think so" conveys less confidence in one's opinion than "I think so." The implication is "If I had to form an opinion, I would think so." (Since I don't have to form an opinion, I only "probably" think so.) Sometimes you have to look pretty hard to find the "if," especially if it's a common phrase such as this one. But it's usually still there. – BobRodes Apr 3 '18 at 11:29
  • Thanks BobRodes. In the above sentence, does 'would' convey less confidence? – whitekrystal Apr 3 '18 at 22:56
  • @whitekrystal Yes, I think it does a bit. Although perhaps it's better explained as a device to make one sound less opinionated. – BobRodes Apr 4 '18 at 8:44
  • @whitekrystal "I would like to play outside" is considered a nice request by a child to go outside. "I want to play outside" is considered demanding and insistent. Both mean the same thing, but the tone is radically different between the two. – Neil Apr 4 '18 at 11:49
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According to Practical English Usage, 3rd edition, 436.4:

It makes questions, requests, and suggestions less direct. For example: I though it would be nice to have a picnic. Hi! I thought I'd come over and introduce myself. My name's Andy.

Also based on Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, the entry for this word number 10 says:

" used to give your opinion about something when you are not very sure about it".

So in your sentence, I think, the word "would" is all about being less certain or less direct.

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