2

I don't often come across would meaning "possible or likely".

But when I was back home on vacation several days before, my college textbook gave an instance:

I recalled Blanche DuBois's famous line: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Could anyone rely on the kindness of strangers these days? One way to test this would be for a person to journey from coast to coast without any money, relying solely on the good will of his fellow Americans. What kind of Americans would he find? Who would feed him, shelter him, carry him down the road? (From The Kindness of Strangers, written by Mike Mclntyre)

The reference book for teachers said these would meant "possible or likely" here. Was the textbook right?

If so, why not use "could" or "might" instead?

3

The original text

The tenses used in the quoted passage gave me a little trouble trying to follow the scene. Being curious, I searched the web, and I now believe that your text was adapted from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Unlocking the Secrets to Living Your Dreams, page 124.

Here is the original text, three paragraphs in full, with the differences highlighted:

    I thought of my destination--New Orleans, the setting for Tennessee William's play A Streetcar Named Desire. I recalled Blanche DuBois's famous line: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
    The kindness of strangers. It sounds so quaint. Could anyone rely on the kindness of strangers these days?
    One way to test this would be for a person to journey from coast to coast without any money, relying solely on the goodwill of his fellow Americans. What kind of Americans would he find? Who would feed him, shelter him, carry him down the road?

The missing part is perhaps not absolutely necessary, but having it would make it much easier for us to follow the thought (and of course the narration) as indicated by the tenses.

Explanation

To simplify the explanation, I will talk about the time the writer was writing this essay in present tenses.

I thought of my destination--New Orleans, the setting for Tennessee William's play A Streetcar Named Desire. I recalled Blanche DuBois's famous line: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

In this first paragraph, the story is told in the simple past, which is consistent with the tenses used from the beginning of the essay. (The first line of this essay is "One summer I was driving from my hometown of Tahoe City, California, to New Orleans.")

The kindness of strangers. It sounds so quaint. Could anyone rely on the kindness of strangers these days?

This changes everything. The part "The kindness of strangers. It sounds so quaint." interrupts the flow of thoughts in the past, and shifts us back right to the present--the time the writer is telling the story. This makes it clear that the writer is asking such a question ("Could any one ...?") while he is writing that paragraph. He is thinking about the possibility of such thought, so he uses could.

One way to test this would be for a person to journey from coast to coast without any money, relying solely on the goodwill of his fellow Americans. What kind of Americans would he find? Who would feed him, shelter him, carry him down the road?

This is an example of hypothetical thinking. Let's consider each sentence separately.

The first sentence, "One way to test this would be for a person to journey from coast to coast without any money, relying solely on the goodwill of his fellow Americans." is written in the present time. He is making a real assertion. He can use will instead of would, but he makes it "less assertive" by using would instead. This can be read as he is quite open to other ways (to test), or he is less sure about the test.

The second sentence is a hypothetical (unreal) thought. Once he assumes "what if" according to the first sentence, every would after that indicates "unreal thinking": What kind of Americans would he find? Who would feed him, shelter him, carry him down the road? -- The tense usage is similar to those in the "present unreal conditionals", for example, "If we tested so, what kind of Americans would he find?"

  • I have a doubt now. Some other native speakers in this forum say "will" and "would" are almost the same as in "that would be John knocking on the door". Here "would" is also assertive because the saying man has good reason to believe it's John outside. What do you think? – Kinzle B Apr 11 '14 at 6:35
  • "That would be John" is an assertion. – Damkerng T. Apr 11 '14 at 6:39
  • So, why 'would" is assertive in some cases, and less assertive in others? Any rules to follow? – Kinzle B Apr 11 '14 at 6:44
  • No, when "would" is used to make an assertion, it's always assertive. It's just that conventionally, it's less assertive than "will". And it's not easy to spell out all the rules. And even the 9 items listed under the entry 633 in PEU (Practical English Usage) are still not enough, imho, to give you the complete picture of the usage of "would". If you have a grammar book (e.g. PEU), I'd like to suggest taking time to go through the usage slowly and carefully. If you don't have any grammar book, it's better to take time to understand "would" as it is used in each sentence, one at a time. – Damkerng T. Apr 11 '14 at 6:56
  • To remind you that it's not easy to simply follow the rules, here is a comment I posted to you once: "The past events, the hypothetical thinking, and being polite are all intertwined because in English unreal (irrealis) mood is expressed in the past tense." And that is not the whole picture of it. – Damkerng T. Apr 11 '14 at 7:00
0

The textbook is misleading, would is used to describe a definite outcome given a particular set of pre-conditions, it can only be thought of as describing a possible or likely situation if the pre-conditions themselves are not definite but merely possible or likely (in this case, the meaning possible or likely doesn't derive from the meaning of the word would but from the pre-conditions themselves).

This is the sense in which it is used in the example:

One way to test this would be for a person to journey from coast to coast...

asserts that such a test will definitely have an outcome (the pre-condition is someone undertaking the journey)

One way to test this could be for a person to journey from coast to coast...

doesn't guarantee that the test will settle the question one way or the other

What kind of Americans would he find?

Implies that you will definitely encounter Americans if you journey from coast to coast the only question is what kind they will be

What kind of Americans could he find?

admits the possibility (no matter how unlikely) that it may be possible to journey from coast to coast without encountering any Americans

Who would feed him etc.

has a completely different meaning from

Who could feed him etc.

The first describes people that actually do something, the second describes people that merely have the capability of doing something regardless of their actual behaviour.

  • I agree with your answer, however, I think it might be clearer to say that would could be used as a less definite form of will. – Damkerng T. Apr 10 '14 at 8:45
  • If the article had been written in the present tense, would "would" be still correct? Or use "will" instead? @Damkerng T. – Kinzle B Apr 10 '14 at 8:49
  • 1
    there is a subtle difference, on further consideration, I will edit my answer – bruised reed Apr 10 '14 at 8:52
  • @ZhanlongZheng If a narration is in present tenses, I'd say that both will and would are possible, depending on how much the speaker would like to assert his statement. – Damkerng T. Apr 10 '14 at 8:55
  • 1
    "will" is stronger than "would" in the sense that no other conditions are required. – bruised reed Apr 10 '14 at 9:02
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"One way to test this would be for a person to journey from coast to coast without any money."

If you reformulate this sententence with an if- clause you get something like:

If one wanted to test this a test would be for a person to journey ...

And I think this "would" is the normal "would" used after irreal if-clauses with Past tense subjunctive, only the irreal condition is not formulated with an if-clause, but in a different way.

  • Actually, I have the same thought with you. And I also disgree with the reference book. The only question is how to combine your explanation with Reed's. – Kinzle B Apr 10 '14 at 12:19

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