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In English, "would" usually denotes a conditional voice. "If I were sleepy, I would go to bed."

But I've caught myself using it to denote repetitive or habitual past action. "On Thursdays, we would go to the dump to shoot rats." It sounds perfectly idiomatic (and I don't know what I could replace it with.)

What is this called? Is the imperfect in Spanish roughly the same thing?

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You could replace it with '... we went to the dump to shoot rats, as well as 'used to'. But your construction is perfectly normal. –  TimLymington Nov 3 '11 at 10:44
Re Spanish, you should consider asking on linguistics.SE. –  Mitch Nov 3 '11 at 11:25
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5 Answers 5

You don't need to replace it with anything as it is officially a perfectly grammatical usage of would:

Would (3): Used to; was or were habitually accustomed to ( + bare infinitive); indicating an action in the past that happened repeatedly or commonly. [from 9th c.]

The example from the Wiktionary:

When we were kids we would sit by the radio with a tape recorder on a Sunday, listening out for the chart songs we wanted to have. ~ 2009, "Soundtrack of my life", The Guardian, 15 Mar 09

Although as you can see, the dictionary states used to as an alternative, therefore if you feel the need to, you may rewrite your original sentence to:

On Thursdays, we used to go to the dump to shoot rats.

And still retain the original meaning.

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I rather think you meant “a dictionary” there, not “the dictionary”. And really, saying “a dictionary” isn’t saying much at all — if that. –  tchrist Dec 2 '12 at 1:50
Thanks, @tchrist, and I meant the Wiktionary. Edited! –  RiMMER Dec 2 '12 at 2:43
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English only has two real morphological tenses left, Present and Past. And they're not really all that well distinguished; English morphology is almost all gone now.

All verbs, except modal auxiliary verbs, have a Present tense form (is, am, are, has, have, goes, go, set, etc.) and a (usually different) Past tense form (was, were, had, went, came, set, etc.). The present tense form is equivalent to the infinitive form, except that the 3sg form (subject he/she/it) is inflected with the {-Z₃} 3spres suffix. Those other things that people call "tenses" aren't, I'm afraid. Further discussion of English tenses and non-tenses can be found here.

However, would is a modal auxiliary verb, and all English modals are defective, lacking infinitive forms (*I want to can do that), past participles (*I have must do that), and past tense forms for the most part. The old past tense forms have become modals in their own right, with their own syntax, idioms, exceptions, and curiosities, though they can still function as past markers, in some constructions.

More importantly, all English modals are ambiguous; each has at least two kinds of meaning:

  • Deontic, involving human social phenomena like obligation, permission, ability, desire
  • Epistemic, involving logical calculations about possibility and necessity

More details on modals can be found here.

Would was formed from the past tense of a pre-defective will, and has many of the same base senses, somewhat modified. In particular, it can still function as the past tense of a deontic habitual use of will, which means, after all, "want, desire, be willing"; it's the epistemic use of will that means "future prediction", and this is normally repetitive in sense, because that's characteristic of things one does willingly:

  • The old man will spend hours just staring at the ocean. (at some current time(s)
  • The old man would spend hours just staring at the ocean. (at some previous time(s)

That's the deontic sense of would; it involves desire and *will*ingness.

The epistemic sense is the conditional one (the subjunctive mood verb form, when English had a subjunctive mood, was based on the past tense form of the verb, so this is a normal development). But this isn't a conditional.

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I don’t see how you will ever convince a Frenchman that je fus is a past tense but j’ai éte is a present tense, any moreso than you will ever convince a Spaniard that only amara is a (literary) pluperfect and that había amado is somehow in the imperfect not in the pluperfect. That simply is not the way people talk about tense, John, whether it’s in French or Spanish, or in English. With these multiword verbal phrases using auxiliaries, it is the entire thing that people refer to as having a tense. Yes, the passé composé is a compound tense, but it’s still a past: see passé. –  tchrist Aug 12 '12 at 18:25
French and Spanish are inflected languages. They actually have many different forms that fit into a tense system. English has simply lost all that -- there are only 9 inflectional morphemes left in English. Talking about English "compound tenses" implies there is an English tense system, and there isn't. It's that simple. And I'm not interested in convincing anybody about facts. Facts are self-demonstrating, and opinions are free. –  John Lawler Aug 12 '12 at 18:36
You do learners a disservice when they come to you saying they have a future-tense verb like amabo/amaré/aimerai and ask how to translate that into the future tense for English, and you slap them down with academic nonsense claiming that they cannot do that because English has no future tense. Nonsense! It means you cannot converse with people. Yet if they had merely stricken the banned word tense from their question, you could have given them the simple answer to the simple question: the English future is will love or sometimes shall love. Stop making easy things hard for people! –  tchrist Aug 12 '12 at 18:43
Well, I wouldn't give them that answer, anyway. No native English speaker ever uses shall for the future, or for anything else outside a couple fixed phrases and legal terminology. After teaching for 40+ years I've learned you do nobody a favor by lying to them. If you don't like it, I'm sorry; but I'm not in charge of what you read or how you interpret it. And vice versa. –  John Lawler Aug 12 '12 at 18:49
I'm with John. The problem with claiming that I will go is the future tense is that there is no morphological test that distinguishes it from I may go, which nobody calls a tense. Just because a form corresponds to a future tense in languages which have one, does not mean that it is one. I am reminded of Alexander Gil's Logonomia Anglica (1616 IIRC) which solemnly sets out the paradigm of the "future subjunctive": That I may be hereafter; that thou mayst be hereafter etc. –  Colin Fine Jan 6 '13 at 9:53
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Yes, would can be used for the imperfect tense in English (also known as the "past continuous" or "past progressive" tense.)

The following constructions could also be used:

On Thursdays, we used to go to the dump to shoot rats.

On Thursdays, we were going to the dump to shoot rats.

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Most linguists (Huddleston and Pullum are exceptions) recognize only two English tenses, present and past. A tense is a change in the finite form of the verb that typically (but not invariably) indicates when an action takes place. The present tense of regular verbs, for example, has the same form as the plain form, except in the third person singular, while the past tense is marked by the suffix ‘-ed’ in all persons. ‘Would’, like 'used to', can certainly indicate habitual action, but it remains invariable, meaning it shows no inflections for person, number or tense. –  Barrie England Nov 18 '11 at 16:52
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Would is a modal auxiliary verb expressing, primarily, unreal meaning (as in your first example), and, secondarily, habit (as in your second example), prediction and volition. As a modal verb, it is invariable and cannot helpfully be said to be in any tense.

Your sentence If I were sleepy, I would go to bed is an example of what is known as the Second Conditional. (The First Conditional would be If I am sleepy, I go to bed and the Third Conditional If I had been sleepy, I would have gone to bed.)

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I disagree with your first statement. Would as an auxiliary can be used for the imperfect or past continuous tense. –  ghoppe Nov 18 '11 at 16:32
@ghoppe: Every grammar book I possess says otherwise. –  Barrie England Nov 18 '11 at 16:38
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The usage of would you describe is simply the past tense of will. It is perfectly legitimate.

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