Thank you for showing interest in this post. Please have a look at the would in the following excerpts from The Economist:

Conveniently for politicians, some of the pain of high inflation would be borne by foreign investors, whose share of public debt exceeds 30% in many rich countries. “In a crunch, will Chinese debt-holders be treated as senior to us pensioners?” asks Mr Rogoff. But less foreign investment in years to come would need to be set against that advantage. A perception that a nominally independent central bank was in fact a creature of politicians would create a risk premium on investment that would slow growth throughout the economy.

Inflation would bring arbitrary redistributions of wealth to the disadvantage of the poor, just as Keynes observed it to have done in the late 1910s. Richer people are more likely to hold the houses and shares that rise in value with inflation, not to mention mortgages that would be inflated away alongside government debt. Higher inflation would also provide a bail-out that favoured more indebted companies over the less indebted.

I suppose all the would here are used more or less in the same way, but I would like to know what their exact meaning is. (I found Why "that would be me"? (part 2) relevant.)

Threads seemingly related to such usage of would: Thread 1 Thread 2 Thread 3

Another thing that came to my attention is that, when a main clause has would as its modal auxilliary, the verb of the dependent clause bound to the main clause tends to take the past tense form, as illustrated by was and favoured above, and I cannot fathom why. Below is another example:

The first sign of any debt trouble in the rich world would probably be rising inflation. At first, that might be a relief, given the present deflationary risk and the recent history of persistently insufficient inflation. It would be a sign that the economy was recovering.

Yet another example in another context.

A vaccine would not just save lives; it would change the course of the pandemic in two separate, if related, ways. It would protect those who were vaccinated from getting sick; and by reducing the number of susceptible people it would prevent the virus from spreading, thus also protecting the unvaccinated.

The examples should suffice for you to notice the pattern.

On comments: It is not really about irrealis, because clearly there are subject-verb agreements in the above examples, as illustrated by the contrast between was and were.

Updated: There are at least two sources putting forward rules but shying away from enunciating the logic behind.

One is Michael Swan's Practical English Usage (p. 232):

Past instead of would...

Would, like will, is avoided in subordinate clauses; instead, we generally use past verbs. This happens in if-clauses, and also after most other conjunctions.

If I had lots of money, I would give some to anybody who asked for it. (not If I would have... who would ask for it.)

Would you follow me wherever I went? (not ... wherever I would go?)

In a perfect world, you would be able to say exactly what you thought. (not .. .-what you would think)

I would always try to help anybody who was in trouble, whether I knew them or not.

Another source is Wikipedia.

See further Thread 1 Thread 2 Thread 3 Thread 4

If you would like to go academic, please refer to Conditionals: A Comprehensive Empirical Analysis (Declerck and Reed, 2001)

The rationale behind using the past tense seems to be that it can creat a sense of being distant from the reality to amplify the impression that what is being taked about is merely hypothetical. But it still strikes me as odd.

Please pitch in and share your thoughts.

  • 3
    I don't see anything to be confused about. The writer is speculating about what would happen in a time of high inflation. The word is being used in only one sense. Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 12:28
  • @Kate Bunting Thanks. Can you help with the second question I have at the bottom? I have met such choices of past simple tense serveral times in sentences where "would" is present to make speculations, so they are not talking about what really happened in the past. Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 12:58
  • It's the past tense for irrealis (counter-factual) clauses. It's similar to the use of the past for irrealis conditionals (eg "If I saw him"); but for reasons I am not clear about, this construction does not generally use the exceptional ('subjunctive') "were" in place of "was".
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 13:22
  • @Colin Fine Thanks. I am aware of the presence of "irrealis were" in English, but doesn't it often appear in if-conditionals? And to the best of my knowledge, such "irrealis" construction is peculiar to "were". Can this pattern extend to other verbs as well, as in the case of "favoured" above? Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 13:30
  • 1
    @grammar-in-action: No, the past tense is normal for irrealis conditionals: If I saw, If they went, If you wanted. The tense used in these constructions is precisely the simple past - except for that pesky "were". (Historically it was the past subjunctive, in Old English: but that has fallen together with the simple past).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 13:38


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