I stumbled upon this paragraph.

... the phone felt sticky with sweat against her ear. Her hand seemed glued to the receiver. There were papers spread out on the floor in front of her because she often noted down beforehand what she would say, and sometimes her notes seemed to shrink and disappear, as if absorbed by the paper, as if the paper were swaowing up au the fine phrases, the beautiful thoughts of Anna. Outside the sun had set, the traffic was increasing, cars were sounding their horns. " Are we going to meet? " she finally would ask. He murmured something, hurriedly, a vague promise that hovered in the air from one phone ca to the next. They would arrange a call for the foowing day. She was madly in love with him. She had to earn his trust. He wasn't the sort to risk his peace of mind for an acquaintance made over the phone. She had fallen for him as soon as she saw him. Then she had seen him twice more, waited outside his office and foowed...

Why did the author use "she finally would ask"? What would be changed if I rephrase it as "she finally asked"?

  • These are interesting choices of verb tense. "Finally would ask," could be a past tense habitual/recurring activity, but that sounds strange in this situation (How many times would someone ask that?). It could also be a projection of what might happen in the future: "she finally would ask (after a time) ...", but then why would the story go back to the past tense for his answer (He murmured something.) It is confusing. To really figure out the meanings behind all these various verb tenses, I think we need a little more context.
    – Lorel C.
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 0:36
  • @LorelC. I appreciate for your comment. I've edited it with full(?) context which I found at CCAE. Could you be so nice and have a look one more time please?
    – dolco
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 0:54
  • 1
    You should give a link to the passage. Right now it just sounds like poor writing.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 1:18
  • There are a few actual typos in there, such as "swaowing up au the fine phrases" and "and foowed" - are those just OCR problems rather than errors (intentional or otherwise) in the text?
    – V2Blast
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 5:29
  • 2
    Yes, can anyone explain what is going on there with the double "L"s? Maybe this is some tech.-type glitch that is obvious to those in the know?
    – Lorel C.
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 5:32

2 Answers 2


Under normal circumstances, "finally asked", and "finally would ask" are not quite the same.

"Asked" is for an event that happened in the past. "Would ask" can be used in either of 2 ways: for an event that used to happen as a general recurring pattern (probably more than once) in the past, OR for an event which, from a past perspective, will happen in the future (i.e. the past tense of "will ask").

But in this particular passage, I also am puzzled as to why the author chose to say "she finally would ask" (possibly repetitive action in the past) followed immediately by "He murmured"(simple past), and then another indication of habitual/recurring events, namely the phrase "from one phone call to the next".

This passage has a fascinating ambiguity to it that makes it hard to decide if this event really happened just once, or if it is part of a pattern of occurrences in the past, or if it the whole thing is taking place in the character's imagination.

Or, it is possible that it's just bad writing, but if so, I would say it's "good quality bad writing", if that's possible.

I do get the feeling that the female character is in a very distraught or mixed-up mental state, either because of emotion or mental illness, or maybe some other reason. The confusion and vacillation between verb tenses certainly adds to that impression. Perhaps that is why the author made the grammar choices he did.

  • While I feel like this hits the nail on the head, I feel like it it would benefit from a line somewhere stating that it is a stylistic choice and stylistic choices aren't necessarily done on the basis of grammar. I wish I could remember the name of the famously circuitous ungood author.
    – Jake
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 13:52

I feel like I can empathize with this character. I've written something like this. In the case of the thing I wrote which most matches this, applied to this situation:

The woman intended to finally ask the question, but he murmured something right when she felt she was finally up to having the nerve. His not really comprehensible utterance was then taken in the moment as if it was a response to what she had not actually said, and so she didn't actually say what she had intended.

My overall feeling is that this is something that happened repeatedly, rather than a one time event. She would realize before the next call that she had not actually said her thing, and he had not actually responded, so the event would repeat, time and time again, to her great frustration.

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