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I have a question regarding what verb tenses to use when using "will" and "would".

So if I start my sentence using "will", do I need to stick to using will throughout my sentence? I was recently taught that I'm using conditionals if I'm using "will/would" and that I need to stick to the verb of the conditional verb.

I've always said the following, though.

A: I will buy it if the price goes down.

B: I'll buy it if I have money.
I would buy it if I have money.

Do you think it should have been this?

A: I will buy it if the price will go down.

B: I'll buy it if I will have money.
I would buy it if I had money.

Similarly, I've always said the following.

She told me that she will go grocery shopping tomorrow, but I told her I won't be able to go with her.

Should it be this instead?

She told me that she would go grocery shopping tomorrow, but I told her I wouldn't be able to go with her.

Is it ungrammatical to mix tenses in conditional sentences?

  • "I would buy it if I had money." seems similar to "If I were rich, I would live on Long Island." which talks of something that will never happen. (I will never be rich and I will never live on Long Island.) I will let somebody else chime about that sentence. – kiamlaluno May 1 '13 at 10:06
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Between "I will buy it if the price goes down." and "I will buy it if the price will go down." only the first is idiomatic English.

Would is used as past tense of will when reporting something said or thought. "She told me that she would go grocery shopping tomorrow, but I told her that I wouldn't be able to go with her." is correctly using would, and it is similar to the following sentences:

He said he would be here at eight o'clock.

She asked if I would help.

They told me that they probably wouldn't come.

  • So, when reporting something said or thought, I shouldn't use "will" like I did in my grocery shopping example? – jess May 1 '13 at 12:20
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With conditionals (IF ... THEN), like your first example, the 'rule' (it's far more complicated, really, because some specific situations call for different constructions) is that the tense-bearing verb in the condition (IF) clause and WILL in the consequence (THEN) clause take the same past/non-past tense:

If the price goes [non-past] up I will [non-past] buy it.
If the price went [past] up I would [past] buy it.
If the price had [past] gone [perfect] up I would [past] have bought [perfect] it.

It is the function (IF or THEN) of the clause, not its position in the sentence, which governs:

I will [non-past] buy it if the price goes [non-past] up.
I would [past] buy it if the price went [past] up.
I would [past] have bought [perfect] it if the price had [past] gone [perfect] up.

Note that will here does not express tense; it implies consequence, not futurity. You may substitute may/might or can/could for will/would in all these examples.

The situtation is different in your 'shopping' example, where will/would in the subordinate clauses does express tense, and must be deployed accordingly. Let's look at two different situations:

She told me last week that she would go grocery shopping yesterday, but I told her her I would not be able to go with her.

In this case the shopping trip was in the future when you spoke with her but is no longer in the future; you must employ the past form of will.

She told me last week that she will go grocery shopping tomorrow, but I told her I will not be able to go with her.
She told me last week that she will go grocery shopping tomorrow, but I told her I would not be able to go with her.

In this case the shopping trip is still in the future; you were unable to accompany her then and you still are unable to accompany her. You may use either will or would, depending on which timeframe you want to communicate.

  • So if I'm not using "if...then" conditionals, I can mix tenses like in your shopping trip sentences? For example, "she 'told' me last week that she 'will' go...but I 'told' her I 'will' not..."? – jess May 1 '13 at 12:09
  • @jess Yes, when they occur in different timeframes. As I said, it's complicated. "She told me last week that she would go shopping tomorrow" is also acceptable in all those examples. – StoneyB May 1 '13 at 12:15
  • I have another question. It's about saying "I knew I wouldn't/won't be able to do it" about an action that I will need to perform in the future. Since I'm reporting a past event but the action itself hasn't taken place yet, can I use either and be correct? – jess May 1 '13 at 12:35
  • @jess Only wouldn't is correct here. You cannot know if you can do it, unless it's passed, which in this case, you use wouldn't. It's a bit complicated, so let's take a timeline. 1, 2, 3, 4 being points in time. 1 is when you knew. 3 is the present. I knew I wouldn't be able to do it. This was confirmed at point 2. I knew I won't be able to do it. This tends to mean it is confirmed at point 4, but can you confirm the future? Since you cannot, it would be I know I won't be able to do it. – Jerry May 11 '13 at 20:06
  • @Jerry On the other hand, you can say "I didn't know yesterday that I will be able to attend the conference after all." – StoneyB May 11 '13 at 20:32

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