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The phrase: "This attack would require the user to comply"

What tense is would require? Several thoughts were that it is somehow a present unreal conditional, but is it present?

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Would is a modal auxiliary verb, and modal auxiliary verbs don't inflect for tense. So it can be thought of as (1) having no tense, because it's unmarked; (2) having present tense, since that's the default case; or (3) having past tense, since historically would was a past form of will. Which one you choose depends on what you think "tense" means. Hint: "unreal conditional" is not a tense, though "present" is. –  John Lawler Jun 4 '13 at 16:40
Thanks John, that makes sense. I understand unreal conditional is not technically a sense. Was trying to find some way to clarify what it was :) Couldn't figure out the tense to go with that phrase. –  pendraggon87 Jun 4 '13 at 18:49
That's because there wasn't any there. The rule that says the main clause has to be tensed either applies vacuously to modal auxiliaries, so they get an inaudible tense marker; or it simply fails to apply to them, so we get no tense. It's not worth worrying about, since it isn't real. It's just one set of rules banging into another. You pays your attention and you takes your choice. –  John Lawler Jun 4 '13 at 19:27
While the word "would" has no tense in the sentence, the sentence as a whole would be past-perfect. It makes more sense if you think of "would require" as one verb, instead of two. –  Noah T Jul 8 '13 at 16:42
In the question's title, when you say [other subject], you really mean the direct object. The direct object receives the verb; it can also be thought of as the target of the verb. –  Seri Jul 29 '13 at 13:59
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1 Answer

This conditional doesn't have a tense because it exists purely in a vacuum.

There are times when modal verbs do take on a tense, but not here. This is purely hypothetical and may never happen. With that said, the action it would require would have to take place in the future (hasn't happened as of yet, right?). But even then, the modal itself doesn't have a tense.

When a sentence has some kind of time marker (today, yesterday, later, etc.) or the action is clearly in the past or future, you need to select the past or future form of the modal.

When that happens, it will be constructed more like this:

I would have gone to the store later. (past because of have gone)

I will go to the store later. (future)

I could have gone home after school. (past)

I can go home after school. (future)

I might have been mistaken. (past)

I may be mistaken. (future)

You can tell in my examples which modal to choose by the tense of the action (or linking) verb. That's how you decide. Strictly speaking though, modals themselves don't have a tense. And if the verb is a bare infinitive, which require is, you don't need to worry about tense at all.

In your example, this attack hasn't occurred. If the attack were to occur, it will (note: grammatically this should be would; I'm just illustrating a point with will) force compliance, so it's talking about future possibility/probability. The reason that you choose would instead of will is that it's such a high degree of uncertainty. If you were definitely planning on carrying out the attack and it was a mater of time, then you would use will.

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Your mother says that it will be finished with today, but yesterday she said it would be finished then, too, and we’re still waiting. –  tchrist Sep 25 '13 at 0:14
@tchrist Actually, that's completely consistent with what I intended to say. I lumped present and future together because they would use the same modal. Excluding 1st and 3rd person singular, the present tense uses the same form as the infinitive; I left present tense verbs out because they can go either way. Past tense needs it own set which is what I was trying to articulate, but you make a good point. –  John Q Public Sep 25 '13 at 0:21
Yes - it depends a bit on your perspective. As an informal term, if you use "tense" loosely to mean 'some vague marker of time', then you might class 'would' as a tense marker. But if you take "tense" in English as strictly being the phenomenon marked by (e.g.) the -ed ending on regular verbs and "took"~"takes", then you may end up classing all instances of 'would' as "something else"... –  Neil Coffey Sep 25 '13 at 0:50
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