Then she remembered; Paul and Minta and Andrew had not come back. She summoned before her again the little group on the terrace in front of the hall door, standing looking up into the sky. Andrew had his net and basket. That meant he was going to catch crabs and things. That meant he would climb out on to a rock; he would be cut off. Or coming back single file on one of those little paths above the cliff one of them might slip. He would roll and then crash. It was growing quite dark.
(Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse)

"He would roll and then crash" is at the past reference time and when we foreshift this it would be "He will roll and then crash."

If the original sentence were "He would have rolled and then crashed," it would not an irrealis, but just a back-shifted form from "He would roll and then crash." And it puts more psychological distance from the original probability. Is this right?

Or "He would have rolled and then crashed" is at the past reference time and this incident is known now invisible narrator’s present time (= invisible speech time?), so this expression is quite different from “He would roll and then crash”. Because the latter is just the future possibility at the past reference. Is this right?

1 Answer 1


Woolf is exploiting the ambiguity: it's literally a reported interior monologue with backshifted future wills, time firmly anchored by "had his net and basket". But what "follows", the "That meants" are Mrs. Ramsay's anxiety-driven fantasy, "unreal" in a semantic rather than grammatical sense; so it's something of a shock when you come back to the literal fact of "It was growing quite dark" after all those ambiguous woulds.

  • What's meant by "had his net" here? "Got his net"? @StoneyB
    – Kinzle B
    Dec 27, 2015 at 10:54
  • @KinzleB No, it's literally had: he was carrying those things. Dec 27, 2015 at 12:20
  • Interesting! We don't use have that way. In Chinese, you could say "he has money" to mean "he has money on him", but not "he has his net" to mean "he is carrying his net". It just means "he possesses a net", nothing more. Have is a much less versatile word in Chinese. @StoneyB
    – Kinzle B
    Dec 27, 2015 at 12:45
  • @KinzleB Yes, English have is a word of very wide application, whose sense is strongly conditioned by context. In this case, the immediately preceding sentence tells us that Mrs Ramsay is visualizing "the little group" as she saw it earlier on the terrace: Andrew was among them, and at that time he had his net and basket. Dec 27, 2015 at 13:07
  • It's a shame that Listenever seems to have given up asking questions in ELL. And we even don't know what happened to her. That's perhaps the biggest shortcoming of online pedagogy. @StoneyB
    – Kinzle B
    Dec 27, 2015 at 13:34

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