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Do the following two statements convey the same meaning?

Why would he do this to me?

Why did he do this to me?

To me both of them seem to imply something in simple past.

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Looking at the title of the question, I came here half-expecting a post out of a relationship advice column :P –  Milind Ganjoo Apr 17 '12 at 6:43
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3 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

They could have the same meaning depending on the context. The second sentence is in the simple past. He did it; it's done; you are left wondering why he did it.

The first sentence, could mean he did it and now you're wondering why he would have done such a thing. However, the first sentence could also mean that you anticipate that he is going to do something to you (the this) and you are wondering why he would.

If it's clear from what precedes the sentence that he has already done something, then I think these two sentences have the same meaning.

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The first sentence would also apply if you are not sure that he has done it (or someone else did). –  JeffSahol Apr 16 '12 at 22:40
    
@JLG +1 Great answer! –  zpletan Apr 16 '12 at 22:52
    
@JLG Regarding your final point, I'm not sure I agree entirely. I think even if it is clear that he has already done something, there is some distinction: the first sentence could mean "what are the possible reasons he might have had for doing this", whereas the latter means "what is/are the actual reason(s) he did this". I agree that in practice they would normally be used to mean the same thing, but consider for example that it would not be unreasonable to respond to "why did he do it?" with "well, why would he do it?" - the latter implies speculation. –  Graham Snyder Apr 17 '12 at 7:56
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In practice, they are more or less interchangeable. If asked to define a difference, I would say:

  • The first carries the idea that something unbelievable has happened (My neighbor just blew up my car; why would he do this to me?)
  • The second carries the idea that something more normal, yet still unexplained, has occurred (My neighbor's dog just bit my leg; why did he do this to me?).'

I would guess that the first is more common. (Google confirms, with twice as many results for the first as for the second.)

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Sorry, I'm not a native English speaker, but I would say there is at least one difference: "Why did he do this to me?" implies for sure that the action already took place, whereas "Why would he do this to me?" might refer to some action that has not happened, yet (and, possibly, will never happen).

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In practice, "Why would you say that?" is a common idiomatic response to something someone really has just said. It could be used in reference to a hypothetical future action, but as @zpletan indicates, usually it simply exaggerates the "unlikeliness" of what actually happened. –  FumbleFingers Apr 16 '12 at 22:28
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