The primary tense in the following paragraphs is the present tense. But I have trouble understanding why the two bolded words (could and would) are in past tense..

There are many misconceptions about the practitioners of chemistry. Many people picture a chemist as a solitary figure who works in a laboratory and does not talk to anyone else for days at a time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many chemists do indeed work in laboratories but rarely by themselves. A typical day for a modern chemist would be spent as a member of a team solving a particular problem important to his or her company. This team might consist of chemists from various specialties, chemical engineers, development specialists, and possibly even lawyers. Figure 1.1 represents the people and organizations with which typical laboratory chemists might ex- pect to interact in the course of their jobs.

Many topics in economics can be discussed within both a positive and a normative framework. Consider a proposed cut in federal income taxes. An economist practicing positive economics would want to know the effect of a cut in the unemployment rate, economic growth, inflation, and so on. An economist practicing normative economics would address issues that directly or indirectly relate to whether the federal income tax should be cut. For example, she may say that federal income taxes should be cut because the income tax burden on many taxpayer is currently high.

  • (Sorry, I know this isn't an answer.) If you haven't already, you'll need to spend some extra time studying the modal auxiliaries in English. They don't behave the same way most verbs do (and, in fact, don't even behave the same way as one another).
    – user28567
    Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 20:59

1 Answer 1


Those words aren't being used to indicate past tense, they are being used as conditionals. For could be, read "is capable of being". For would be, read "is," but with the additional implication that this is not describing an actual existing state of affairs, but just a hypothetical one.

If the paragraph were in the past tense, those phrases would be replaced by could have been and would have been.

(Edited to respond to comment below)

  • if i'm not mistaken, "could have been" and "would have been" are past perfect not past?
    – user133466
    Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 17:07
  • What I meant was this: If you were recasting the entire paragraph in the past tense, that's how you would recast those particular phrases. EDIT: Upon research, "would have been" is actually "to be" in the "perfect conditional tense". Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 17:12
  • thanks Chris! do you think the use of would in the second paragraph is also conditional?
    – user133466
    Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 17:35
  • Yes, would is being used in the same way in all three places. Please note, however, that the conditional is technically the whole phrase would + [verb], not the word would by itself. Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 17:38

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