Why do natives sometimes use "would" instead of did in simple past questions? I can't find the rule about this anywhere. I hear such questions like "Why would you call the police? " or "why would he do this?" From content I know that it is not about repetitive past actions.

3 Answers 3


Would is a modal, and like all modals has a variety of meanings, generally different from the same phrase without the modal.

In this case, to me it expresses a connotation: surprise, disapproval, or disappointment: something like "I didn't expect you to call the police" or "it wasn't necessary to call the police", or even "I wish you hadn't called the police".

  • Thank you for your help, I think you got me precisely. I'm curious about this case why there is no information about additional option of usage would? Is it used only in informal language?
    – Elvira
    Oct 10, 2020 at 18:40

For me, using USA English, "Why would you do this?" is asking for my thought process. It is hypothetical; that is, it does not necessarily mean that I took the action. By contrast, "Why did you do this?" states that I did take the action, and is asking why I took that action.

If I did take the action, and you ask me, "Why would you do that?" you are asking for the reasoning behind my choice. There is no question that I took the action. We both know I took the action. Thus the question is not whether the action happened, but the reason or motivation behind the action.

  • I'm not a native speaker. But to me in the question "Why did you do this?" there is also no question that you took the action. It's the question about the reason (because of the word "why").
    – CITBL
    Oct 9, 2020 at 20:06
  • @CITBL Sometimes a "why would you..." question is used where you don't know whether they did - which a "why did you..." question wouldn't be. But a "why would you..." question can also be used even when you know that they did it. Its special feature is then the fact that it suggests surprise about or (sometimes) hostility to the decision, whereas "why did you..." would be a neutral way of asking the same thing.
    – rjpond
    Oct 9, 2020 at 23:47

Without context, the examples you provided with “would” may be interpreted in the future or the past tense.

In most cases, these phrases come along with context, so here we know you are talking about the past tense usage of “would”.

Generally, “would” and “did” can be used as past tense verbs interchangeably without any difference.

In my experience, people use both equally as much irregardless of region. There isn’t a technical difference between the two in the past tense.

I am also assuming you know that “did” is only used in the past tense.

  • 1
    I don't agree that there is no difference. The difference is in the emotion or attitude: see my answer.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 9, 2020 at 19:40

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