A fairy tale begins:

Once upon a time the men of Gotham would have kept the Cuckoo so that she might sing all the year, and in the midst of their town they made a hedge round in compass and they got a Cuckoo, and put her into it, and said, 'Sing there all through the year, or thou shalt have neither meat nor water.' The Cuckoo, as soon as she perceived herself within the hedge, flew away. 'A vengeance on her!' said they. 'We did not make our hedge high enough.'

What does "would have kept" mean in this context? How do you paraphraise it? Is it something like "they were likely to have kept"?

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    This is the now mostly obsolete volitive sense of will, meaning approximately wish, desire, want. The apparent perfect uses HAVE + pa.ppl. as the past expression of present-referent would. So the construction can be paraphrased The men of Gotham wanted to keep the Cuckoo - keep, again, in a mostly obsolete sense of maintain possession of, as in eat your cake and keep it, too. Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 19:37
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    In the sense of keep a pet or keep a cow, which is not that obsolete. On the other hand, it is rare to find the deontic sense of will outside a conditional clause any more, let alone to find a use of the preterite would as a real preterite. That certainly qualifies as obsolete. Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 20:02
  • @StoneyB, I never knew will with volitive sense could be used with perfect form, though in that context the meaning of desire suggested itself. Yet, I have one more. How shall I parafraise this sentence? At one time there would have been flowers on the table, a clean cloth, small spoons standing ready in the cut-glass serving dishes of condiments she had spiced ...
    – user54503
    Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 20:19
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    ...he has suggested that the Thames would have frozen more readily in the seventeenth century than now. I think OP's would have = was/were likely to have is a perfectly good substitution, and I see no real reason to explicitly introduce the concept of "volition" here. Any more than I read likely as carrying overtones of like=prefer. Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 20:39
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    @FumbleFingers Yes, I expressed myself badly. Volitive will is 'mostly' obsolete as an ordinary declarative, which is how I believe it is used here. It's still active in conditionals, negations, occasional emphatics - You will keep arguing with me! :) But nobody today would [epistemic] say, as Hamlet does, "I would I had been there" or "I would you were so honest a man". We would say "I wish". Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 21:22

1 Answer 1


The discussion in comments to the question (including some from myself which I no longer endorse) probably covers everything. But I guess we need an actual answer, so...

As @StoneyB comments, this is an example of the now mostly obsolete volitive sense of will, meaning approximately wish, desire, want.

On my first casual reading, I carelessly interpreted would have kept as meaning were likely to keep / were in the habit of keeping (in my defence, because that's still a common usage today).

But in fact a more reasonable paraphrase here is would have kept = wanted to keep. As @John Lawler comments, and discusses more extensively here, it's effectively an obsolete usage today.

  • well, thank you all guys. it was really helpful even though i still have no clear understanding. i might as well ignore this case having dubbed it absolutely out of date and of no real use nowadays. yet, i was just wondering why when shifting this would (I would you were so honest a man) in to past tense it should take up perfect form as in "would have kept". still, there have been many vague and interesting cases of would in my reading experience. later i'll try to find them and bring out to discuss.
    – user54503
    Commented Oct 20, 2013 at 6:36
  • The volitional/deontic sense of ‘will’ is, as both you and John say, effectively obsolete in the spoken language except in certain, limited situations. It is still usable in somewhat archaising literature, though: if you read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (now popularised as the TV series Game of Thrones), for example, you will see it used very frequently in this sense. Commented Oct 20, 2013 at 13:47
  • @user54503: I think If you would keep it any time, dry it very well with clean cloths (late 1700s) is effectively the same usage. Today it's really just a stylistic choice whether to use if you want to keep it or wanted to in that context, and quite possibly something similar applies to your example (i.e. - maybe "...the men of Gotham would keep the Cuckoo..." would have been considered semantically equivalent). But I don't really know. Commented Oct 20, 2013 at 16:13

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