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Today I was talking to one of my friends who couldn't process her application. So she told me the following:

I just don't understand. Why wouldn't they process my application? I was only 5 minutes late.

I wonder if the part in bold is a well established English statement. Shouldn't it be:

Why didn't they process my application?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The modal verbs will and would have two senses, like all modals:

  1. the deontic (social -- permission, obligation) sense of 'be willing to', as well as
  2. the epistemic (logical -- possibility, probability) sense of 'be predicted to', which Latinate pedants call "The Future Tense".

Sense 1 is what appears in negative uses of would, and also in the hypothetical uses of both will and would -- i.e, this sense is most common in Negative Polarity contexts, like the NPIs in this puzzle.

  • I won't do it! = I am unwilling to do it!
  • They would not listen to him. = They were not willing to listen to him.
  • If you would see it my way, = If you were willing to see it my way,
  • If she will accept his apology, = If she is willing to accept his apology,
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They would not listen to him could also mean that they might not listen to him(future). How could we say if it's past or future? –  Noah Jun 24 '12 at 16:55
You can't. Modals are not inflected for tense, and future isn't a tense in English anyway. As with most reference to the future, we use words or phrases like tomorrow, by next Wednesday, or when he gets back to indicate future status, which isn't part of the verb phrase, but rather is to be inferred from context. –  John Lawler Jun 24 '12 at 16:58

Yes, it is a "well-established" English expression.

The Modal Verb "would" is sometimes used to talk about something that somebody refuses to do.

Ex. He just WOULDN'T listen.

This is why it is also used to complain about situations and about things that you've repeatedly tried.

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But she didn't repeatedly try it. It's probably her first time submitting an application to the unknown organization. –  Noah Jun 24 '12 at 16:22

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