There are times when we use past tense to refer to future, like in the following sentences:

We'd manage the funds until he came of age. You'd get helpers until you got older.

The background behind these two sentences was that a retail tycoon had a serious car accident and was in a coma. The first sentence was uttered when the tycoon's wife and partner were talking about who was going to inherit his shares if he had died. The wife answered their son, a teenager at that time, would.

My question is: why do we use past tense in came and got while in fact the tycoon's son was only a teenager at that time? Does it have to do with sequence of tenses?

By that I mean if we are talking about a counterfactual situation using the auxiliary "would", then the second verb has to be "came" and "got" respectively. Instead, if we replace would with will in those two sentences, then we will have to say

We will manage the funds until he comes of age. You will get helpers until you get older.

Or do you have other explanation for the uses of came and got? Thanks a lot in advance.

  • Sometimes it is the narrative future in the past, a regular backshifting. Other times it is one half of a of a past conditional, like "I'd do it if you asked me to." Morphologically, English has only two tensed finite forms, the one marked for the past and the other mostly unmarked, so non-past. Sometimes we use modals to indicate time, but not always, and both forms have many other uses then some simplistic present-vs-past dichotomy. English is hardly alone in this, for even more richly inflected languages use allegedly present or past forms for many other things.
    – tchrist
    Dec 25, 2014 at 16:38

1 Answer 1


They are not past tense. We'd and you'd are stretto forms of we would and you would, which some people would call 'conditional'.

  • Stretto forms?! Isn't that a music thing? Dec 25, 2014 at 21:46
  • I was sure that stretto was a linguistic term (as well as the musical one), referring to reduced forms that occur in rapid speech. But I can't find an example, so maybe I imagined it.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 25, 2014 at 23:59
  • Ah! I think you meant staccato, then. Dec 25, 2014 at 23:59
  • No, I'm pretty sure I didn't mean staccato. That's different.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 26, 2014 at 11:43
  • When I said past tense, I meant "came" in "We'd manage the funds until he came of age" and "got" in "You'd get helpers until you got older." And they were very clearly marked in my original question. The use of would in the two indicated sentences are of course conditional. Yet my question remains unanswered.
    – nunu
    Jan 6, 2015 at 1:10

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