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  1. She would be sixteen.
  2. She would be his wife.

What do these two sentences mean?

  1. Do they mean that “she is sixteen” and “she is his wife”? If not what is the difference between these two sentences and those two sentences?

Or

  1. It’s just a guess that she might be sixteen and she might be his wife
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    Is there any context to these? I'm a native speaker and I don't think you can use them as independent sentences without context. FWIW the most natural usage I can think of is before "if" like "She would be sixteen if she were still alive." and "She would be his wife if he hadn't moved away." – wjandrea Dec 22 '19 at 18:36
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Would is the past tense of the auxiliary verb will, which has a primary use as a marker of future time. It may seem odd that the word has a past form, but it comes to bear in what is called past futurate, which is contemplation of future action from the past. The verb form thus arises from the transposition of tense required for a report of direct discourse (i.e., a direct quote). Thus if I say she told me, "I will be sixteen in March," then I can later report that quote as

[1a] She told me that she would be sixteen in March.

Also consider following example that I borrow from a kind commenter:

[2a] She didn't know it when they met, but years later, she would be his wife.

They're married now, but they met in the past, and from that temporal vantage point, their marriage was in the future.

However, would has many modal meanings in English, i.e., meaning beyond an expression of past time. (The OED devotes several pages to the definition of will/would.) One of these indicates determination or intention:

[1b] She's thirty now, but she would be sixteen if she could.
[2b] She believed that if she only got his attention, she would be his wife.

Notice the difference from "... could be his wife," which expresses mere possibility. The would expresses her desire and intention to marry him. Compare this to the title of Rudyard Kipling's short story "The Man Who Would Be King."

Would can also express certainty upon consideration of evidence. For example, to answer the question, "How old is Alice?"

[1c] Let's see. She was born the year I graduated from high school, so she would be sixteen.

In answer to the question, "Is Jack's wife at the party?"

[2c] Did you see a tall, elegant woman in a long, black cocktail dress and red high heels? That would be his wife.

So in the OP's examples, how can we tell which sense is intended? We can't without more context, as I've tried to supply in my examples.

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  • thank you so much. As there are 2 meanings, how do we know in which sense it was used? – Ramteja Guthikonda Dec 22 '19 at 14:43
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    You miss perhaps the most common use, that of something that will take place in the future. E.g. "She would be sixteen next month" and "She didn't know it when they met, but years later, she would be his wife." – jamesqf Dec 22 '19 at 18:38
  • @jamesqf Quite right. I've revised my answer to include your observation. I hope you don't mind that I've used your example. You are credited by reference. – user105719 Dec 23 '19 at 1:13
  • @RamtejaGuthikonda As I've noted in my revised answer, you may need more context to understand which meaning fits. – user105719 Dec 23 '19 at 1:14

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