Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I have read somewhere that He won't do something means He refused to do something and also He wouldn't do something has the same meaning.

Now I'd like to know, what is the difference in usage of these two sentences?


I checked the book Grammar in Use: Intermediate again and I found my answer:

You can use won't to say that somebody refuses to do something:

I've tried to give her advice, but she won't listen.

The car won't start. (=the car refuses to start)

Ref: Grammar in Use: Intermediate, 3rd Edition,pp 40-41, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

and:

Somebody wouldn't do something = he/she refused to do it:

I tried to warn him, but he wouldn't listen to me. (= he refused to listen)

The car wouldn't start. (= it refused to start)

Ref: Grammar in Use: Intermediate, 3rd Edition,pp 68-69, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

share|improve this question

closed as general reference by J.R., Robusto, tchrist, Andrew Leach, FumbleFingers Jan 6 '13 at 15:18

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

2 Answers 2

up vote 1 down vote accepted

All words and phrases and sentences have meanings in context. Those in Murphy's book are no exceptions to the rule. Examples:

A: Where's Bob? I threw this party so that he could meet Peggy Sue.
B: I invited him, but he wouldn't come, he said, because he had something more important to do. And when I told him that Peggy Sue would be here, he said "Peggy Sue who?" I tried to convince him to come, but he said that he would not come.

Therefore, he refused to come to the party.

A: Where's Bob? I threw this party so that he could meet Peggy Sue.
B: I invited him, but he won't come, he said, because he had something more important to do. And when I told him that Peggy Sue would be here, he said "Peggy Sue who?" I tried to convince him to come, but he won't come.

Therefore, he refused to come to the party.

As all the other comments and Bhushan Firake's answer point out, those two statements have other nuances, depending on context. No grammar book will be able to give you an exhaustive answer for these kinds of differences. The best thing for you to do in this case is to rewrite your question with a couple of different scenarios and ask about the specific differences they might imply. For example:

  1. Bob doesn't eat vegetables. He said he wouldn't eat them as a child because they tasted terrible to him. He says he won't eat them as an adult because they have never been part of his diet. -- There's a difference in meaning here because of the different contexts provided by Bob's answers.

  2. Bob refuses to participate in war. He says he wouldn't shoot another person because he considers it murder, even if shooting the other person prevents the other person from shooting him. He'd rather die than be a murderer. Therefore, Bob would never shoot anyone. Similarly, He says he won't shoot another person because he considers it murder, even if shooting the other person prevents the other person from shooting him. He'd rather die than be a murderer. Therefore, Bob would never shoot anyone. -- There's no difference in meaning here regardless of the differences in time (past, present, future). Bob simply refuses to shoot anyone for any reason because he believes that it's murder. He refused in the past, he refuses in the present, and he will refuse in the future.

If this doesn't clarify things, I'll delete the answer.

share|improve this answer

He wouldn't do something.

means he has not done something in the habitual past, or he was not in the habit of doing something.

He refused to do something.

means he has refused to do something in the current past.

and clearly,

He won't do something.

means he will not do something in the future.

Edit

However, in certain contexts, won't can also imply that something hasn't been done in the past. For example:

She won't go on a date with me.

shows that, in the future, I'm unlikely to go on a date with her, but it also might imply that she's refused to go in the past. However, there's no way to know that for sure without further context, such as:

She won't go on a date with me, even though I've asked her ten times.

but even that sentence still has implicit references to the future (namely, unless she has a change of heart, I won't be going on a date with her).

share|improve this answer
    
Thank you for your answer, but I think it isn't completely true, the book Grammar in use intermediate says: both He wouldn't do something and He won't do something mean He refused to do something. Now, I want to know the difference in usage. –  yaa110 Jan 6 '13 at 11:31
    
Be careful that both sentences have a past meaning. –  yaa110 Jan 6 '13 at 11:33
    
Using refused in this context could suggest a bit of stubbornness, or entrenchment in certain convictions, while wouldn't might imply simple laziness. If a student was lazy, I'd be more likely to say, "He wouldn't do his homework," but, if the student didn't do homework even after much berating, then I'd be more likely to use the stronger refused to do. Moreover, if an individual was extremely afraid of flying, to the point where they would take a bus instead, I might find "He refused to fly" to be a more colorful way of reporting it, as opposed to the more bland "He wouldn't fly." –  J.R. Jan 6 '13 at 11:33
1  
Then I guess it's up to you whether you want to be believe what you read here, or what you read in your book. I find nothing wrong with this answer. He won't accept my invitation means he won't come to the party, which implies that party isn't over yet, so we're talking about the future: in other words, will he show up at the party, or not? –  J.R. Jan 6 '13 at 11:55
1  
Or, "I insisted he come to the party but he won't accept [my invitation]" (if the party hasn't happened yet), or, "I insisted he come to the party but he wouldn't accept" (if we are talking about a party in the past). –  J.R. Jan 6 '13 at 12:01

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.