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I can't separate the two different cases of using 'would' in this situation:

"Oh no!" I said, and that's when I couldn't hold it in anymore. Everything that had just happened kind of hit me and I couldn't help it: I started to cry. Like big crying, what Mom would call "the waterworks."

I hesitate between seeing this as a repeated action or an imaginary situation. Could I get any help?

If Mom was here right now, she would call it 'the waterworks'

OR

When I was younger, I used to cry. Mom would call my crying 'the waterworks'

I'm having a lot of trouble with 'would' now and I don't have clue how natives understand it immediately by the context. Why does it mean what it actually means in this case? Where is the clue?

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Not every use of "would" has to be one or the other. The point of language is to convey information, not to adhere to strict grammar rules.

In this case the author write "What Mom would have called 'the waterworks'" to reiterate the fact that the narrator's mother is not present, and to add a cute detail about the mother's character. We can assume that if she was present, that's what she would call that kind of crying.

The sentence also strongly implies that the narrator used to cry like that in the past, which is how he knows that's what his mother would say. Or, perhaps, another family member used to cry like that in front of him.

The specifics are unimportant. You aren't meant to think about this too deeply. It's just a way to add some information about the narrator's family, without changing much of the ongoing story.

Side note: "What mom would have called ..." could also be used if the mother is deceased. Assuming the source of the quote is the book "Wonder" by R. J. Palacio,, and knowing the plot, I already know the mother is just fine -- but without any other information, there would be no way to tell.

  • 'The sentence also strongly implies that the narrator used to cry like that in the past, which is how he knows that's what his mother would say.' I agree. But this point is also the cause of why I think of 'would' as a past habit. – Through The Wonders Oct 4 '18 at 0:31
  • @ThroughTheWonders Note I say implies, not means. We really don't know why his mother uses that phrase, and, in the current context, it's not important. – Andrew Oct 4 '18 at 0:40
  • Finally, it is absolutely impossible to see a past habit of Mom in this case? – Through The Wonders Oct 4 '18 at 0:48
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I am not a native speaker of English but I understand it as you guessed "if his/her mom were here or saw the crying, she would call it in that way" because she have already seen this big crying before and call it in this way.

  • Why don't you see it as a habitual past? It's quite easy but I can't be certain about a trueness of this point. – Through The Wonders Oct 2 '18 at 23:47

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