1- We had a terrible night. The baby wouldn't go to sleep.

2- I was late for work today because my car wouldn't start.

3- The CD wasn’t working so I brought it back to the shop but they wouldn’t give me my money back because they said the box had already been opened.

I suppose I can use "didn't" instead of "wouldn't" in these sentences.

I don't understand the logic of using "would" in these kind of situations. What kind of difference do we convey when we use "would" instead of "did" in these situations?


1 Answer 1


This is a subtle one.

You're right about "would" expressing willingness in the past (the past of "will" in a rather archaic sense of "be willing").

In the third case it might be literally that meaning: "they were unwilling/didn't want to give me my money back".

But actually the sense of the first two, and possibly the third one as well, is something like "I'm irritated because the baby kept on not going to sleep" etc.

Nobody really thinks that the baby is wilfully refusing to go to sleep, or that the car has any volition: it's a metaphorical extension also seen in a sentence like "The car absolutely refused to start".

As I indicated, these expressions have an affective meaning, expressing the speaker's frustration or annoyance.

  • Great answer, thank you. "Monsters! Monsters from the swamp! Folk said the road was fraught with peril, but I wouldn't listen. I got my comeuppance now! " (This line is from a fantastic video-game. Context : A peasant comes to us in fear for help. We are the monster slayer by the way.) . I suppose in this sentence, that peasant is angry at himself since he didn't listen to the warning of the folk. Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 22:45
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    @TalhaÖzden You cannot use just plain didn't in place of this sort of wouldn't. You have to instead use the longer but more complete didn't want to if you intend to retain the same sense.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 2:05

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