Four months, two weeks, and five days into the mission, we received Nephthy's final message. (Nephthy = A space colony ship) Panicked voices broken by static. An alien message impossible to decipher. Then nothing. Our first generation of warships would lead the rescue operation. When we arrived, we soon located the remains of Nephthys floating in the darkness.

Could anyone be nice and find an exact entry from any dictionary for the usage of that would in the paragraph? Because I saw a post on the other site a few years ago that OP asked the same question as in my title. But all the comments of that post said that the usage of would was past habitual actions. But OP kept asking that over and over that, to him, it did not seem to be the case, and to me, a non-native, I felt the same way. But he didn't get any good answer. Here, I'm asking the same again. In many dictionaries, the usages of would that are related with past tense are usually these three types: (1) past habit, (2) past volition, (3) past prediction. But, if you see my example, (3) can't be right because they actually sent the rescue team. (2) didn't feel right either because, I don't know but, the tone of voice(?) doesn't seem to fit with the situation. They are just saying the fact that they sent them, not the attitude of them, right? Lastly, (1) shouldn't be the case either because they didn't dispatch rescuers over and over. They did once. The problem is that I got nothing left to match. Please help. Just what is the difference between these below?

Our first generation of warships would lead the rescue operation.

Our first generation of warships led the rescue operation.

If you put a link for the entry of any dictionary with your explanation, then it would be the most grateful.


Syntactically it would be "valid", but it wouldn't be "appropriate" to replace would with did in the cited example, because in such contexts this would always imply emphatic refutation (of some contextually-relevant claim that those warships didn't actually lead the rescue).

BUT you could reasonably remove the word would completely, and change "bare infinitive" lead to Simple Past led, which wouldn't significantly affect the meaning.

The justification for making the stylistic choice of would lead over led is simply that the narrative reference time is after receiving Nephthy's final message, but before the rescue mission.

So what we have here is a future in the past reference - at that reference time, the rescue lay in the future. English doesn't really have a future tense, so we usually include the auxiliary verb will to indicate that something hasn't happened yet. But if the "reference time" of "yet" is in the past, rather than the actual time of utterance (now), we use would (the Past Tense of will).

TL;DR: Using X would lead to Y rather than X led to Y is essentially a stylistic device that can help make a Past Tense descriptive narrative more "immediate" and "engaging", by encouraging the reader to immerse himself in a "narrative reference time" located at some point before the rescue took place (at which time, the rescue that would happen still lay in the future). You can call that "past prediction" (OP's definition #3) if that makes sense to you.

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  • Thank you so much. But I don't get your first paragraph though. Could it be that, if I use would lead over led there, then some phrase like "but they refused" could follow? – dolco Jan 4 at 16:56
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    No, this use of would has nothing to do with willingness (or intention to do something which may not actually happen, for some reason). It's just the simple combination of "Past+Future" (at that time in the past, someone might have said I will lead the rescue, which we'd "backshift" when reporting it later, as He said he would lead the rescue). If you wanted to convey the sense of "thwarted intention" (it was meant to, but didn't happen), you'd say they would have led the rescue [but they actually didn't, because their ships' engines weren't working properly]. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jan 4 at 17:05
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    ...note that you wouldn't normally say anything like I would have done it, but I refused, because would have implies was willing, whereas refused implies was not willing. The two concepts normally can't both apply to the same situation. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jan 4 at 17:08
  • I don't know how to thank you! – dolco Jan 4 at 18:11

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