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While addressing backshifting of epistemic 'would' over on English Language Learners, I ended up trying to analyse will/would usage in the context of...

1: Considering how long it's been out of the fridge, I think the fish will be putrid
2: ? Considering how long it's been out of the fridge, I think the fish would be putrid

...which I contrasted with...

3: Considering how long it's been out of the fridge, I think the fish will be unsafe to eat
4: Considering how long it's been out of the fridge, I think the fish would be unsafe to eat

It's my opinion that #2 above doesn't really work, because the fish either is or isn't putrid (and in most credible contexts, we're definitely about to find out soon, one way or the other).

By the same token, both #3 and #4 work for me, because we may or may not eat it - which uncertainty licenses the hypothetical, irrealis "not present tense" auxiliary verb form would.


But my reasoning came unstuck when I tried replacing think with hope...

5: Considering how much it cost, I hope it will be good
6: * Considering how much it cost, I hope it would be good (completely unacceptable)


I want to know if there's any justification for my not liking #2 above - and if so, why exactly?

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    Considering how long it's been out of the fridge, I would think that the fish is unsafe to eat – Hot Licks Dec 13 '15 at 20:06
  • Decontextualized, I suppose I understand why you might think otherwise but, given appropriate context, none of your examples (1-6) are either unacceptable or even borderline. For example, "How would the fish taste if we cooked it now?" (2); "Would the fish still be good if we cooked it now?" (6). – JEL Dec 13 '15 at 20:53
  • @Hot Licks: Yeah - I made that very point in the ELL comment thread. Given half a chance, native speakers would be (are! ) more than willing to adopt the even simpler present tense for all three of my example contexts. – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '15 at 21:09
  • I tend to agree with your reasoning throughout the post. As regards @HotLicks comment, I would only use that if the fish were actually in front of my interlocutor and myself, or let's say in the next room. If I am driving home in the car with my wife and she suddenly remembers she left the fish out, then it changes to I would think the fish will be unsafe to eat. – WS2 Dec 13 '15 at 21:47
  • @WS2: Greg bowled me a googly by introducing a credible if clause to "justify" #2 above. It's not easy to think of a short example context where that's not possible. – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '15 at 22:08
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Taking a stab at answering your question, I had to consult a few grammar guides. It doesn't necessarily seem to me that #2 is incorrect usage of would in certain contexts.

The context of your question denotes a particular amount of uncertainty. That probability of the fish being putrid shifts the tense the longer the fish has been out of the fridge. As a stand-alone sentence, I don't think it's completely accurate, but with the added uncertainty, it could be.

Per Swan's Practical English Usage:

We do not normally use modal verbs to say that situations definitely exist or that particular events have definitely happened. We use them, for example, to talk about things which we expect, which are or are not possible, which we think are necessary, which we want to happen. which we are not sure about, which tend to happen, or which have not happened.

So the question isn't about whether the fish is or isn't putrid, it's about how certain we are that it is/isn't.

I'm imagining a situation where the context could be:

Oh! I think I left the fish out on the counter. Do you think it might be putrid if it's only been on the counter for a few hours?

I don't know. Considering how long the fish has been out on the counter, I think the fish would (probably) be putrid (by now).

Consider the following cases to see if these work for you:

(From OP) Considering how long it's been out of the fridge, I think the fish would be putrid.

  1. Considering how long it's been out of the fridge, I think the fish could/might/should be putrid.
  2. Considering how long it's been out of the fridge, I think the fish would have gone putrid.
  3. Considering how long it's been out of the fridge, I think the fish would probably be putrid.
  4. Considering how long it's been out of the fridge, I think the fish would probably be putrid by now.
  5. Considering how long it's been out of the fridge, the fish would probably be putrid by now.

This imposes a lot of stipulations on your original sentence which might not accurately describe the situation you're after, but I think this is the way I'd believe it to be usable.

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  • +1 Good answer! I think #2 works when there is a lack of evidence that the fish is putrid. That's also the context all your five examples would fit. Am I right? (I'm not a native speaker:) btw) – Kinzle B Dec 29 '15 at 16:09
  • It's really more about the speaker than the evidence. Some people speak as if they're certain of everything and some people like they don't know if anything is real. You could be looking at obviously putrid, rank-smelling fish while holding it in your hand and still say it's most likely putrid. It's all context-based, and the choice of words in sentences like this changes the perceived intent ever so slightly. The OP's sentence is a little funny if you look at it closely from a grammatical perspective, but it's not about what evidence you have, it's about what evidence you pretend to have. – Adam Dec 29 '15 at 17:34
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I agree with what you say about the sense of #2, but I don't think that makes it an odd sentence. The fact that it was unrefrigerated might well make you throw it out without bothering to determine whether it really was putrid. More explicitly, #2 might be:

Considering how long it's been out of the fridge, I think the fish would prove to be putrid if we were to smell it.

Your example #6 is improved by changing "how much it cost" to "how little it cost", which suggests it might be okay in appropriate circumstances, but I haven't been able to figure that out.

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  • I think introducing the conditional if we were to smell it kinda defeats the point of my example. In principle, any statement of the general form I think X is Y can always be validly expressed as I think X would be Y in the context of an (explicit or implicit) if [we were to establish the truth of the matter one way or the other]. On the other point, I really can't see how changing much to little makes #6 any more acceptable. – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '15 at 21:28
  • I disagree with you about the acceptability of your example. I'm not editing your example, I'm explaining my understanding of its meaning. – Greg Lee Dec 13 '15 at 22:13
  • The idea of changing "much" to "less" in #6 is that a very low cost might reasonably lead you to doubt whether something would be good if you were to eat/use it. – Greg Lee Dec 13 '15 at 22:26
  • Well, the possibility that we might not establish the truth of the matter in #2 did occur to me (that's why I marked it with a question mark for "questionable", rather than an asterisk for "unacceptable"). Be that as it may, I'm rather intrigued that @JEL above says he thinks example #6 is acceptable (not even "borderline"), and you think it's "improved" by changing much to little. I still can't see how that works in your mind, but what if I change it to Considering how much it cost, I hope it would be worth it, where (presumably) there's no chance that we won't establish the facts. – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '15 at 22:35
  • For your last example, you can't presume that. That is what using "would" versus "will" conveys -- that there is some chance that we won't establish the facts. Otherwise, you would have used "will". – Greg Lee Dec 13 '15 at 22:48

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