Difference between simple past and would+infinitive in past future constructions

Aallokko

Member
Finnish - Finland
Hi,

I was reading C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity and came across this paragraph:

It is not carried on by sexual reproduction. Need we be surprised at that? There was a time before sex had appeared; development used to go on by different methods. Consequently, we might have expected that there would come a time when sex disappeared, or else (which is what is actually happening) a time when sex, though it continued to exist, ceased to be the main channel of a development.​

Lewis is talking here about "the Next Step in evolution", which will become manifest in the future. It's not a possibility but a certainty, as Lewis thinks that it's something God will cause to happen. I was wondering the use of simple past (in bold) in this paragraph. What is its function here in terms of grammar? Could it be replaced with would+infinitive without affecting the meaning?

Here's how it would look like after the replacement:

Consequently, we might have expected there would come a time when sex would disappear, or else (which is what is actually happening) a time when sex, though it would continue to exist, would cease to be the main channel of a development.​

If there is a difference in meaning between the original paragraph and the altered paragraph, what would that difference be and how could it be described? I did search the forum and googled the internet but didn't find a clear enough clarification.

Any relevant comments would be appreaciated. Thanks.
 
  • I am waiting for someone to contradict me, but I think the two versions mean the same thing. Actually, I prefer the style of the original because there is a "would" earlier - "there would come a time when sex..." - and it avoids using "would" three more times in the same sentence.
     

    Aallokko

    Member
    Finnish - Finland
    Thank you for your reply, johngiovanni.

    I have another example:

    There was an old lady from the Cree tribe named "Eyes of Fire," who prophesied that one day, because of white man's greed, there would come a time when the fish would die in the stream, the birds would fall from the air, the waters would be blackened and the trees would no longer be. Mankind as we know it would all but cease to exist.​

    Let's replace those bolded would+infnitives with past simples, like this.

    There was an old lady from the Cree tribe named "Eyes of Fire," who prophesied that one day, because of white man's greed, there would come a time when the fish died in the stream, the birds fell from the air, the waters were blackened and the trees no longer were. Mankind as we know it would all but cease to exist.​

    So are these both correct and do they mean the same thing? The first version sounds better to my ear (but I'm not a native speaker). The second version has, in my opinion, a somewhat oldish smack.

    One thing I was wondering about with the Lewis quote was whether the time of utterance and the state of affairs have any significance for the choice of words. If the prophesy was given yesterday, and the fish will die tomorrow, and I tell about the prophesy either today ("Yesterday this old lady told me" et cetera) or in a week ("A week ago this old lady told me" et cetera), could and should I share the prophesy on both instances with the same words, altough in the first instance the prophesy hasn't come true yet, whereas in the second it has?
     
    i stand by my earlier suggestion. C.S.Lewis was pretty good at English - to say the least. For me, the future in the past is already signalled in the "there would come a time when", and there is no need to repeat the "would".
    So - for me at least - your second version - "when the fish died", etc. works very well. And I prefer it for stylistic reasons, as I indicated before.
     
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