EN: Use of would in a past sentence

Discussion in 'French and English Grammar / Grammaire française et anglaise' started by Agnès E., Sep 27, 2005.

  1. Agnès E.

    Agnès E. Senior Member

    France
    France, French
    Bonjour !

    Our friend E-J has raised an utterly interesting question in this post. I fully agree with her that this might be the object of a whole thread, as this question often wanders through my brain (each time I meet would used in a past tense, i.e. almost every day! :D).

    I know about the similar sense of used to.
    But sometimes it appears that would might be chosen for some other reasons, which mysterious nuances I am unable to decipher.

    Would you please help me?
     
  2. E-J

    E-J Senior Member

    Cambridgeshire, UK
    England, English
    Hello Agnès :)

    Both 'used to' and 'would' can be used to talk about habitual actions in the past, and 'used to' is certainly more useful for learners to acquire first.

    We tend to use 'would' especially when reminiscing about the past, telling a story or recollecting some regular or repeated thing we did long ago.

    "When I was a child, we would visit my grandmother every Sunday afternoon. I would sit on my grandmother's knee and she'd sing me a song."

    'Would' is more restricted in use than 'used to'. You could happily replace 'would' with 'used to' in the above paragraph, because the verbs (go, climb, sing) are referring to actions or habits. To describe past states, 'would' sounds very wrong. Instead, say 'used to':

    "I used to live alone. :tick: I used to own a dog. :tick: I used to take him for walks in the park." :tick:

    "I would live alone. :cross: I would own a dog. :cross: I would take him for walks in the park." :tick:

    (Note that these sentences are all perfectly good English, but not in this context. You might very well say "If I had a bigger house, I would own a dog" but the meaning is a conditional, and we're not talking in the conditional here, but about things that happened in the past.)

    Does this help? I'm tempted at this point to suggest it should be moved to the English Only forum! But perhaps we can find equivalent usages in French to illustrate these examples.
     
  3. pieanne

    pieanne Senior Member

    Nice Hinterland
    Belgium/French
    En français, l'imparfait est utilisé pour traduire les deux, "would" et "used to". Cependant, pour rendre "used to", on ajoute par exemple "avant", "il y a longtemps", et cela implique un contraste avec le présent, que l'on ne fait plus l'action dont on parle.

    "Je me rappelle, quand je vivais à la côte, nous allions à la plage tous les week-ends" = we would go to the beach...

    "Avant, on mangeait du poulet tous les dimanches" = we used to have chicken ...
     
  4. Astartee Junior Member

    Paris
    France - french
    mais "avant" est une préposition, qui ne peut être utilisée seule comme un adverbe !
    (on utilise souvent "avant" comme adverbe dans le langage parlé, mais c'est incorrect)

    dire plutôt : "auparavant", "autrefois"...
     
  5. pieanne

    pieanne Senior Member

    Nice Hinterland
    Belgium/French
    J'ai vu que "avant" pouvait être adverbe de temps.
     
  6. Welshie

    Welshie Senior Member

    France
    England, English
    Agnès, it may be helpful to think of the sentence like this:

    [if we were still living in that time] we would go for walks, we would keep sheep, we would pay the bills without worry, we would fish in the rivers....

    It is my belief that that is the reason why...

    Although you can do it with pretty much any verb reminiscing in the past in that manner, it does sound stranger with some than with others.
     
  7. pieanne

    pieanne Senior Member

    Nice Hinterland
    Belgium/French
    When you use "would" in that way, do you feel it has anything to do with conditional?
     
  8. E-J

    E-J Senior Member

    Cambridgeshire, UK
    England, English
    Hello Welshie

    It's a nice theory, but I'm not convinced by it :) That's because the verbs which are unacceptable in the past use of 'would' are perfectly ok when you're using it as a conditional. Compare:

    Conditional: If we were living in Victorian times, we would live in a bigger house. :tick:
    Past: When I was a child, I would live in a bigger house. :cross:
     
  9. Welshie

    Welshie Senior Member

    France
    England, English
    EJ - no I'm not entirely convinced by it either :D

    Conditional: If we were living in Victorian times, we would live in a bigger house.
    Past: When I was a child, I would live in a bigger house.

    I agree there are a lot of circumstances when it sounds strange. It especially sounds strange when it's not using "we". However, I don't think you can say the second statement is straight out wrong. It does sound strange, especially since the "bigger house" really needs to be linked to something: a bigger house that what?, in order to make the link with the present.

    Consider the difference:

    When we were children, we would live in a grand old mansion... :)D)
    When I was a child, I would live in a grand old mansion (Hmmmms.)
    When I was a child, I would live in a bigger house. (ergh)

    You can make it work with "to live", just sometimes it sounds strange.

    Curious.
     
  10. Starcreator Senior Member

    Canada, English, French
    Canada, English
    L'imparfait semble être le temps universel, lol.
     
  11. E-J

    E-J Senior Member

    Cambridgeshire, UK
    England, English
    Hi again Welshie

    I disagree completely! :)

    I think these are all incorrect, and I maintain that it's the verb which makes them so. Of course if you're using a comparative such as 'bigger' there's usually more context, but I don't believe the absence of it affects the acceptability of 'would' in the past here, nor do I believe it has anything to do with the personal pronoun you're using!
     
  12. MelB Senior Member

    Virginia
    United States English
    I think in reminiscing in English, and using "would," it sometimes adds an emotional content, that simply keeping the discussion in the past does not. In oral conversation, one sees, sometimes, the eyes of the "teller" light up, their mouth break into a smile :) , when he or she shifts from past tense, to the use of "would" to describe habitual actions in the past. For example, when I was a child, we went to the circus a lot. We liked to watch the clowns, why we enjoyed them so much, we would go every day as long as the circus was was in town. Would imitate them, toss balls, try to be jugglers . . .

    I don't think, "When I was a child, we would live in a bigger house" is necessarily wrong???? Everything is context here. Bigger than what? Well, presumably, one would have to have established the type of house one is living in now, for the statement to make sense. For example,if one preceded the statement with: Now our living situation is constrained. We live in a one-bedroom apartment, with barely room for the four of us to breath. When I was a child, we didn't make the money we made today, but had all that we needed, would enjoy the pleasures of what was really such a nicer, bigger house because money went further then (with an extra room for books), enough to make five people happy, not four. We would light a fire in the living room fireplace, etcetera, etcetera . . .[Aside: I must admit, the word "live" grates me a little in this context, so maybe EJ is right about the verb being the problem, because I was struggling with trying to make that verb work, and had to shift to "would enjoy the pleasures . . . ]

    On the statement EJ suggested was right: "If we were living in Victorian times, we would live in a bigger house, I agree with her, though "implicit in that ((because there, she's talking about a more "conditional use" of "would") wouild have to be the words (than today). That would have to be established by the context of what came before, that is the presentation/sentences (and maybe some context about Victorian houses) to make it work. I mean on this one, there's a rationality issue. Would one live in a bigger house in Victorian times? Are we talking about people in a particular income class. I'm just saying that I don't necessarily see a syntactical problem, as long as the sentence can be supported logically in its context.
     
  13. E-J

    E-J Senior Member

    Cambridgeshire, UK
    England, English
    Good point, MelB! I think that when we use 'would', because we tend to be reminiscing about things that happened long ago, they're also things we can't really ever hope to relive again, except by sharing our memories with others. When we say 'used to', there may be more of a chance that these are things we could do again someday - even if it's unlikely or not in our plans. So, 'would' tends to be used for recounting things that were special to us.

    EDIT: I see you've considerably added to your post today, which confused me for a moment, as I wondered how I could possibly have missed all that when I replied to you yesterday! I've just seen your 'edit'. I have to say that think concerns about whether it is probable that one might be in a high enough income bracket to live in a bigger house in Victorian times is entirely irrelevant, and clouds the issue here.
     
  14. MelB Senior Member

    Virginia
    United States English
    Astartee suggests using "auparavant" and "autrefois" to create the idea of "would" in a past sentence. Another possibility might be, perhaps??? use of "d'habitude." Instead of saying, "j'allais au concert le samedi," (I went to the concert Saturdays) one could say, "j'avais l'habitude d'aller au concert le samedi" (which could, I suppose, translate to, "I used to [or would] go to the concert saturdays.
     
  15. pieanne

    pieanne Senior Member

    Nice Hinterland
    Belgium/French
    I think that "j'avais l'habitude d'aller au concert le mardi" is better translated with "I was used to going to the concert on Tuesdays". It simply means that now you have new habits, maybe you go on Wednesdays.
    When you say "I used to", it's not a change in your habits, it's an opposition between now and the past.
    "I would go to the concert on Mondays" infers some kind of melancholy; you may still go to the concert on Mondays, but you're no longer with the same persons, the mood is different.
    I agree the difference may sometimes be tenuous, it's up to the speaker/writer.
     
  16. MelB Senior Member

    Virginia
    United States English
    How about then, "D'habitude, j'allais au concert le samedi," as a way to approximate the English "used to" or "would" concept for the past. Couldn't that translate to: "I went or used to go to the concert Saturdays" (some time in the indefinite past, to be established by the context)? That doesn't seem to be creating any opposition to what one does in the present. In English, there's an expression: "there are many ways to skin a cat," so I'm trying to find a few here. :D
     
  17. Fredafraid

    Fredafraid Senior Member

    Dubai, United Arab Emirates
    France - French
    This thread looks very helpful!
    But it seems not be as easy as supposed :p !

    And I'd like to do the same in French, but it's very difficult too !!
    "la concordance des temps" is a very odd thing, especially for pupils, and even adults !!

    If someone (a French one) knows the rules and hears this call...
     
  18. E-J

    E-J Senior Member

    Cambridgeshire, UK
    England, English
    I don't think so, pieanne. I would say "I used to go to concerts on Tuesdays" if I was referring to a past habit or custom of mine.

    If you say, "I was used to going ..." you're not focusing on what you did, but on how you felt about it. This construction tells me that you went to concerts so often or regularly that doing so was no longer strange for you.
     
  19. MelB Senior Member

    Virginia
    United States English
    E-J, or anyone else (including, please, people who are French),

    What do you think between these two formulations for capturing the idea, "I used to [or would] go the concert on Saturdays.

    "J'avais l'habitude d'aller au concert le samedi . . .

    or

    "D'habitude, j'allais au concert le samedi . . .

    I suggested the second formulation, only after pieanne said the first didn't work. Do you think they accomplish the same thing? Or is there a difference?
     
  20. river Senior Member

    U.S. English
    "Used to" is used to express an action that took place in the past, but now that action no longer customarily takes place:
    -We used to take long vacation trips with the whole family.

    When combined with did, the ed is dropped:
    -Didn't you use to go jogging every morning?
    -It didn't use to be that way.

    "Used to" can convey the sense of being accustomed to or familiar with something:
    -the factory stinks, but we're used to it.
    -I like these shoes; I'm used to them.

    "Used to" is reserved for colloquial use - not used in formal writing.

    "Would" can express willingness:
    -Would you please sit down?

    It can express insistence:
    -You've ruined everything. You would act that way.

    And characteristic activity:
    -customary: After work he would walk home.
    -typical: She would cause the whole family to be late, every time.

    It can express a hypothetical meaning:
    -My dog would weigh a ton if I let her eat what she wants.

    or sense of probability:
    -I hear the whistle. That would be the five o'clock train.
     
  21. LV4-26

    LV4-26 Senior Member

    To me, I used to go to the concert on Saturdays in French would simply be
    J'allais au concert le samedi.(or tous les samedi)

    1. I don't think you need to add "j'avais l'habitude de" unless you want to stress that it was a habit you had. The only thing I would perhaps add would be "autrefois" (as Astartee suggested). Or "dans le temps" in a more colloquial register.

    2. I wouldn't use "d'habitude," with a verb in the past. I always use it with the present tense. And I would translate it as "normally", I think.
    D'habitude, je fais mes courses le samedi
    I normally go shopping on Saturdays.
    This is something you would say, for example, if a friend met you at the supermarket on a Friday and said "I thought you only came here on Saturdays"
    - Oui. D'habitude, je fais mes courses le samedi mais demain, j'ai un rendez-vous.
     
  22. Kelly B

    Kelly B Senior Member

    USA English
    I do not agree with this detail: I think that used to be... is correct. It is not always pronounced clearly, though.

    The "would" discussion is very interesting! I do not think I would* use it in translation to replace the imperfect, and yet it would be an accurate choice in some of the cases mentioned. It has a colloquial/not-quite-right feel to me, but I'm not sure whether this is just a personal preference.

    *Just the plain old conditional, here...;)
     
  23. river Senior Member

    U.S. English
    True, the "-ed" ending naturally disappears in speaking, but ought not to in writing, except when combined with "did." I'll buy you a new house if I'm wrong.
     
  24. MelB Senior Member

    Virginia
    United States English
    "Used to go" suggests repetitive action (similar to "would go" in English).

    If you drop the "-ed," you have "did go," not "used to go." That doesn't suggest repetitve action. I don't think adding "did" and dropping the "-ed" is an adequate replacement for "used to go" for translating the imperfect into Endlish.

    My 501 French Verbs treatise by Christopher Kendris suggests five ways of using the imperfect, with, as an example the French verb "lire" (to read) (in particular see (c) because the use of "would" is an acceptable translation for repetitive action in the past:

    (a) Il lisait pendant que j'écrivas." He was reading while I was writing.

    (b) An action that was going on in the past when another action occurred.

    Il lisait quand je suis entré. He was reading when I came in.

    (c) An action that a person did habitually in the past.

    Nous allions à la plage tous les jours. We used to go to the beach ever day OR "We would go to the beach every day." (Notice that the treatise here for habitual actions finds acceptable the "would" translation). :)

    (d) A description of a mental or physical condtion in the past.

    (e) An action or state of being that occurred in the past and lasted for a certain length of time prior to another past action.
     
  25. E-J

    E-J Senior Member

    Cambridgeshire, UK
    England, English
    This is what the BBC's 'Learning English' website has to say on the spelling of 'use(d) to do':

    "For questions and negative forms, two forms of the verb are used - either the normal infinitive pattern after did (more common), or the past form used (less common):
    • When you were a kid, did you use to think the sun revolved around the earth?
    • When you were a kid, did you used to think the sun revolved around the earth?

    • I didn't use to take such a large dress size, but now I do."
    • I didn't used to take such a large dress size, but now I do.
    Both, it seems, are correct.
     
  26. LV4-26

    LV4-26 Senior Member

    No wonder it's less common. It just contradicts the basic rules of grammar.
    How strange ! Well, if the BBC says so, I guess we'll just have to buy it. But it's really confusing.:confused:
     
  27. MelB Senior Member

    Virginia
    United States English
    I guess I missed the point of what River was saying. Still "did used to go" sounds odd/grating to me."

     
  28. mchull New Member

    english
    When using the modal auxiliary verb "would" to express habitual actions in the past, does one have to repeat the subject and the auxiliary verb when mentioning more than one action?

    For example, do we say:
    She would forbid them from going out, uproot the trees in the yard so that they wouldn't be tempted to climb them, build walls that were higher still, and, in sheer desperation, but always for their own good, shut them away in hermetically sealed cages.

    OR

    She would forbid them from going out, she would uproot the trees in the yard so that they wouldn't be tempted to climb them, she would build walls that were higher still, and, in sheer desperation, but always for their own good, she would shut them away in hermetically sealed cages.
     

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