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In a recent episode of Eastenders , a pastor said: I am so disappointed that you would think so little of me to a member of his community who he's arguing with, My question is: using would in the that-clause is correct? Why not use the present "think": "I am so disappointed that you think so little of me"? Does would have any particular meaning? Thanks

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  • To help understand this: You could recast such sentences as questions without using "that" at all: "Would you think so little of me?" Or even sometimes without inversion: "Really? You would do that for me?" Which could then become "I'm thrilled that you would do that for me." Apr 3 at 14:51

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The modal auxiliary would can be used to express inclination or tendency. With that in mind, "that you would think so little of me" can be understood to be less direct and forceful than "that you think so little of me". The version with would could be paraphrased "that you are inclined to think so little of me" or "that you tend to think so little of me".

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  • I agree that in contexts like "Would/Will you help me?", the "indirect, conditional" form is effectively less "forceful". But in the present context, I think I think it's the other way around. When asking a favour, obviously the is it possible...? implications of the conditional imply deference / hesitation. But to my mind, if the speaker is "talking down" to someone, as in "I'm surprised you would say that", I think the conditional conveys emphasis (to me, it kinda implies ...that you would even consider saying something like that!). Apr 3 at 16:17
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It's partly just that the "conditional" format is idiomatically established. But semantically, it can be explained / justified as emphatic phrasing.

Note that I would do X can mean I am willing to do X, which in the "Eastenders pastor" context means he's surprised the parishioner is even prepared / willing to think something (let alone actually think it, or - God forbid - even actually say it).


It's worth pointing out that would is usually only used in I'm surprised [that subject + verb] contexts where "verbing" implies some volition, deliberate choice from the subject. So...

I'm surprised you would say that
I'm surprised he would starve himself to death
...are both fine, but...
I'm surprised your plan would work
I'm surprised he would die of cancer
...are both "weird". For non-volitional outcomes, we use...
I'm surprised your plan worked
I'm surprised he died of cancer

doing the subject is

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