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Could anybody explain to me the usage of 'would' in the following sentences:

  1. I asked to borrow the car but my father wouldn't let me.

  2. The landlady wouldn't allow me to have guests.

I was wondering if I could use "did not" in the above sentences instead of "would not," and if so, what is the difference between them.

  • Welcome to EL&U. Would is a word related to will. What aspect of its usage are you interested in? – Lawrence Feb 6 '16 at 11:30
  • I was wondering if I could use ‘did not’ in the above sentences instead of ‘would not ’ and what is the difference between them. – user159170 Feb 6 '16 at 11:59
  • In that case, John Clifford's post below answers your question. – Lawrence Feb 6 '16 at 12:00
  • Examine the definitions of the verbs will, can, may, and do. They tend to be used in similar constructions, but with subtly different meanings. – Hot Licks Feb 7 '16 at 3:34
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Wouldn't is a contraction of "would not" and denotes a lack of permission or willingness on the part of the subject. Your father didn't want to let you borrow the car, and the landlady didn't want you to have guests.

  • I wouldn't call "wouldn't" a contracted form; rather part of the paradigm for the auxiliary verb "would". In other words, it's a single grammatical word, an inflectional form of "would". Same applies to "couldn't" and "can't", inflectional forms of "could" and "can" and thus part of their paradigms. – BillJ Feb 6 '16 at 17:48
  • That's an interesting point of view; I've only ever seen them defined as contractions, and I've never seen a definition of apostrophe that would support it being used as an inflection. Do you have any sources that I could look at on this? – John Clifford Feb 6 '16 at 17:52
  • It's the view taken by the Cambridge Grammar of The English Language (Huddleston & Pullum). Part of the evidence to support that view is that "wouldn't" is not always replaceable by "would not" (as "she'll" is by "she will"); for example in "wouldn't / *would not she be glad?" where the contraction analysis is not viable. – BillJ Feb 6 '16 at 17:58
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    Fascinating, I'll definitely have to look into that further, thanks. Would not you agree that your latter sentence could still use "would not" albeit at the cost of sounding a bit old-fashioned? ;) – John Clifford Feb 6 '16 at 18:03
  • Yes, it's all good stuff! Well, I suppose you could say 'old-fashioned', but H&P star such examples up as ungrammatical. Perhaps the example "couldn't / *could not she find it?" is even more unnatural. – BillJ Feb 6 '16 at 18:12
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The meaning is the same in both 1. and 2.

wouldn't is stronger than didn't.

If your father didn't let you borrow the car, you asked him once, and he replied 'no'.

If your father wouldn't let you borrow the car, you pleaded and begged, and still he said 'No. Absolutely not!'

In many cases the exchange of words, does not actually need to take place. We play the scenario in our heads, and determine with ourselves whether pleading helps. If we determine that pleading would not help, we use wouldn't even if they actually might, if only we asked them.

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