I'm writing a memoir about some of my life. I'm at the first editing stage. I've found that I have used many "woulds." For instance, "After cooking our dinner we would remove the middle seat where Chris, Tim, Ray and Eli could sleep." I rather like "... we removed the seat ...." Is there anything improper about the first way I wrote it?


BTW I am a retired engineer, but I did pass the English proficiency test to graduate from college.

  • 2
    Nothing improper at all. In fact, this use of would is primarily designed for describing past repetitive or habitual actions, like the example. It's deontic would, essentially the past form of deontic will, and it means 'used to; used to like to' the same way deontic will means 'be willing to'. In If he will/would do his homework, he will/would get a better grade, the first will/would is deontic, because epistemic future 'will' can't be used in an If-clause. Oct 11, 2014 at 17:24
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    @JohnLawler Except in 'echoic' closed inferentials: If (as you say) I will not (after all) be awarded the Nobel Prize for Syntax this year, I guess I'd better write another textbook to pay for my Maserati. Oct 11, 2014 at 17:49
  • Yup. There are exceptions to everything, especially rules. It's the glory of language: all grammars leak, as Sapir put it. Oct 11, 2014 at 17:50
  • @JohnLawler In English you have a choice of 'I would walk to the shop (on Fridays)', 'I used to walk to the shop (on Fridays)' and 'I was walking to the shop (when it started to rain)' In French (and I think Latin) they are all encompassed by the imperfect je marchais.
    – WS2
    Oct 11, 2014 at 18:37
  • @WS2 Yes, the Romance languages all normally use a simple past-imperfect inflection for all those things — but that doesn’t mean they cannot add the specific nuances you mention that the variant English forms bring if they really want to do so enough; it just isn’t common. So if you really want to emphasize the progressive aspect, for example, there are various circumlocutions that do that, like French “J’étais en train d’aller...” or Spanish “Estaba caminando...”. But normally you would use the imperfect by itself without the special emphasis those more verbose forms bring with them.
    – tchrist
    Oct 12, 2014 at 2:22

2 Answers 2


The comments (above) answer your question with great analytical exactitude. I offer a lower-brow account (by necessity). To start with, both "After cooking our dinner we would remove" and "After cooking our dinner we removed" are correct ways of describing certain actions; tht is to say, neither wording is wrong when set up properly and when put to work to describe the appropriate event or events you have in mind.

The version with "would remove" works better when, as John Lawler puts it, you are "describing repetitive or habitual actions." For example, if each evening for several weeks weeks during one memorable summer you regularly removed the middle seat after cooking your dinner, the choice "we would remove" is a somewhat better option than "we removed" for conveying the repetitive nature of the action. On the other hand, if you're describing a memorable one-time-only action, you may do better to avoid the implication of multiple instances that "we would remove" introduces and instead use the one-off-friendly option "we removed."

To this point my answer has assumed that you don't indicate elsewhere in the surrounding text whether the seat removal was a frequent event or a singular one. If the seat removal happened multiple times, but you like the sound of "we removed" better than the sound of "we would remove," you can easily accommodate your preference by adding a simple clause (such as "each night") to the sentence to indicate its recurring nature:

Each night, after cooking our dinner, we removed the middle seat where Chris, Tim, Ray and Eli could sleep.

The prefatory phrase "each night" conveys the intended sense of repetition at least as effectively as "we would remove" does, so readers will have no reason to erroneously suppose that you are describing something that happened only once.


We would remove/we'd remove/we used to remove/we often removed/we'd often remove


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