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The perfective and progressive aspects are normally excluded when the modals express 'ability' or 'permission', and also when shall or will expresses 'volition'.

These aspects are freely used, however, with extrinsic modal meanings other than ability; eg:

'possibility' -- He may/might have missed the train. She can't/couldn't be swimming all day.

'necessity' -- He must have left his umbrella on the bus. You must be dreaming.

'prediction' etc -- The guests will/would have arrived by that time. Hussein will/would still be reading his paper.

Page 235, A Comprehensive Grammar Of The English Language - 1985 Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, Jan Svartvik

Based on this I contrived the following examples. For both would and must, the progressive aspect coerces a reading of an inference:

A.1. The lights are on. John must read his paper.

A.2. The lights are on. John must be reading his paper.

A.3. The lights are on. John would read his paper.

A.4. The lights are on. John would be reading his paper.

A.1. represents an imperative.

A.2. represents a logical conclusion.

A.3. sounds iffy. A well-established context would decide its meaning.

A.4. represents a present conjecture.

Is "would be doing sth" the close equivalent of "will be doing sth"? That is to say, whenever "will be doing sth" is used for inference we can use "would be doing sth" instead. Is it true?

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    Do you have a source/reference for #4? I've never seen that to be grammatical. Replace 'would' with 'could' and it's fine. Or stick an 'If' at the beginning and switch the period with a comma. – miltonaut Dec 6 '14 at 15:38
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    I dare say that your sentences A-1 and A-3 are incorrect. If i could come up with proper explanation, i'll post my answer. – Leo Dec 6 '14 at 17:55
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    Source updated. @miltonaut – Kinzle B Dec 9 '14 at 0:58
  • What's your take on my question? @miltonaut – Kinzle B Dec 9 '14 at 10:11
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    A.4 might be an older usage that is fading away, at least in the sense of "This is the expected behavior" (with no explicitly stated hypothesis that it follows from). – Ben Kovitz Dec 9 '14 at 12:14
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Here's how I understand the four examples (native AmE speaker). Others will probably understand them differently.

The lights are on. John must read his paper.

"Now that the lights are on, John is required to read his paper."

The lights are on. John must be reading his paper.

"Since the lights are on, I infer that John is reading his paper right now."

The lights are on. John would read his paper.

"The lights are on. Ah, back when John was alive, on a typical day he read his paper when the lights were on." (This is a bit of a stretch. Some context is needed to set up the counterfactual situation.)

The lights are on. John would be reading his paper.

"The lights are on. As long as life is progressing in its normal way, John is reading his paper right now."

Will vs. would

To answer your question about whether "will be doing something", if it means an inference or speculation, can always be replaced with "would be doing something", my immediate, gut-level, native speaker's reaction is "No, because 'would' is softer than 'will'."

If that's too vague, here is a clear-cut counterexample:

We think that when the lights come on, John will be reading his paper. If so, that would prove that John was reading in the dark.

Here you really can't replace will be with would be, or you would lose the contrast between the two sentences, which is essential to the meaning. The will be clause states a hypothesis. The would in the following sentence states a consequence of the hypothesis.

I'm not sure if "'would' is softer than 'will'" is helpful to someone learning English, but I think it gives you some idea of how native speakers hear these words and choose between them when a sentence could contain either one. Rules try to capture a lot of specific constructions with these words, but the "softer" idea explains those constructions. For example, "I would like an ice cream sundae" is more polite than "I will have an ice cream sundae" because would comes across as softer than will. "John will be reading his paper" sounds more confident and certain than "John would be reading his paper." A hypothesis is closer to what's known, so it takes will in contrast to a consequence of that hypothesis, which takes would. There must be many more forms that this distinction takes. Sometimes the difference is just a subtle shading, and sometimes it's very clear-cut (like the hypothesis-consequence distinction).

An idea

I like the idea of learning some examples to distinguish these verbs, since examples are ripe for intelligently varying to fit new circumstances, while rules are more rigid and don't prime imagination as well. However, the examples A.1 through A.4 don't seem to work well because they're too far from the "anchoring" senses of the verbs. That makes the meaning of those examples somewhat unclear.

So, maybe it would be most helpful* to memorize some example sentences that are well-known to most native speakers, where the meaning of these verbs is extremely clear and distinct. Knowing these sentences might help a learner hear these verbs and use these verbs in ways that are in sync with most native speakers. Unfortunately, I don't have a list of such sentences off the top of my head. Maybe other people can suggest some.

Footnote

* Notice "would" rather than "will" following "maybe". "Will" could work, too, but it would sound a little pushy. I'm trying to make the suggestion as gently as possible, because it's speculative and I'm really not sure it's going to work, so I chose "would" instead of "will".

  • So do your agree "would be doing sth" is the close equivalent of "will be doing sth"? That is to say, whenever "will be doing sth" is used for speculation we can use "would be doing sth" instead. @Ben – Kinzle B Dec 9 '14 at 3:57
  • @KinzleB I have to think about it. I'll post something when it becomes clearer. For now, the fact that a native speaker feels so much doubt and has to think so hard might itself be useful information. – Ben Kovitz Dec 9 '14 at 7:04
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    @KinzleB OK, my answer is "often yes but sometimes no". Here's a counterexample: "We think that when the lights come on, John will be reading his paper. If so, that would prove that John was reading in the dark." Changing the "will be" to "would be" would undermine the contrast between the two sentences, which is essential to the meaning. The first speculation is a hypothesis; the second speculation is a consequence. – Ben Kovitz Dec 9 '14 at 8:44
  • I added the counterexample to the answer, with a little more explanation. – Ben Kovitz Dec 10 '14 at 12:00
  • I see what you mean; btw, would you be interested in answering another of my question: when is "would" licensed in the same way as in "that would be Steve at the door", "I would imagine that.." etc? And does the progressive aspect always coerce such reading? ell.stackexchange.com/questions/27492/… @Ben – Kinzle B Dec 10 '14 at 19:54
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A2 and A4 make immediate sense to me, whereas with A1 and A3, I have to search for a possible context. That might be subjective, but I suspect it would be generally true.

I understand the second sentence in each to be an explanation for why the lights are on, though the causal connection is only implied.

In that context, A3 is the least plausible of the four. P.S. It is not "present conjecture", IMO. Nor would A1 be a conjecture. A1 means something like 'Nothing keeps John from reading his paper" or "John lets nothing stand in the way of his reading the paper."

  • It would be better if you could deal with my questions directly, not just the four tokens. :) – Kinzle B Dec 6 '14 at 15:20
  • Not sure what you meant by "do the trick". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 6 '14 at 16:30
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    @TRomano - Shouldnt A.4 be something more like "If the lights are on, John would be reading his paper"? Even then, I'd still rather use 'could' instead of 'would'. Kinzle, I know you're not asking about #4, but you are asking about 'would', so this is still pertinent. – miltonaut Dec 6 '14 at 17:06
  • @miltonaut: Without an explicit "if", it is inferred that the second independent clause is an explanation that has occurred to the speaker|thinker. The lights are on -- (ah, yes) -- John would be reading his paper right about now. That's why they're on. That is, the explanation is more than plausible, it's probably the right explanation. At least the speaker thinks so. If we use "could" instead, we're back with the merely plausible: The lights are on. John could be reading the paper. If the lights are on, John could be reading his paper. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 6 '14 at 17:16
  • So do your agree "would be doing sth" is the close equivalent of "will be doing sth"? That is to say, whenever "will be doing sth" is used for speculation we can use "would be doing sth" instead. @TRomano – Kinzle B Dec 9 '14 at 3:57

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