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So, me and some others got into a little debate about this and I found some really good information on here, and wanted to get some good expert opinions. I have 2 questions about the following statement:

"This is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained would be used for that purpose."

Questions 1. Does the use of "would" make this conditional/hypothetical? I'm pretty sure that's an easy yes, which leads to the question I'm really needing answered.

Question 2. Is there a way, or any rule for certain situations, where an unspecified condition is determined based on contextual information? For example, here, it seems obvious that the condition is "IF any information is obtained". So is there any rule that says based on this sentence alone, that is the condition, or is it still technically an unknown?

  • Q1 is not hypothetical - it's asserting (definitely, not hypothetically) the usage rules for the zero or more pieces of information obtained. – Lawrence Mar 29 '16 at 3:34
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    @Lawrence: I'm not sure I agree. It could have said that any information will be used, which would be an assertion of fact. I therefore read the choice of "would" as introducing the possibility that such information might not be obtained, which makes it conditional/hypothetical. – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Mar 29 '16 at 10:05
  • @ChrisChaplin Consider the alternative that the second clause is simply in a passive voice. You can replace any information with all information and still use would. – Lawrence Mar 29 '16 at 14:39
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    @Lawrence: the 2nd clause is certainly in passive voice, but the voice doesn't affect the choice of mood/tense for the auxiliary. Try putting it in active voice: "[We] would use for that purpose any information obtained." To my mind this is simply a shorter way of saying "If [we] obtained any information, [we] would use it for that purpose" - which is a conditional statement with the second clause taking the subjunctive. – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Mar 30 '16 at 8:12
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    @Lawrence: the "textbook" conversion would only change voice, not voice and tense, which is what your example does. Changing voice only, it would be "[We] would use X for Y." The conditional tense conveys a subtle but important difference in meaning. This is not to say either is more correct. It depends on what the intent of the sentence is. – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Apr 1 '16 at 2:56
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If the sentence were something along the lines of

If we were to attempt collection of this debt, any information obtained would be used for that purpose.

this would be a hypothetical; we cannot say either way whether an attempt will or will not be made, so right now it's an imaginary situation where it could go either way.

This is not the case with the sentence as written. We know for a fact that an attempt is being made to collect the debt. There are three possible outcomes here regarding the information:

  1. No information will be obtained.
  2. Some information will be obtained.
  3. All possible information will be obtained.

This is a conditional, as it's akin to them saying

If we obtain some information, we'll use it to collect your debt.

this still isn't a hypothetical. They're not saying anything that would result in them not attempting to collect the debt, nor are they saying anything that would result in information not being obtained (even if the amount of information obtained is none).

That said, although I don't think the use of "would" is strictly ungrammatical here, I find it odd that they didn't use "will" because of it not being a hypothetical.

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By conditional/hypothetical, I take it you are referring to the unhelpfully-named third conditional, as explained on Perfect English Grammar:

We make the third conditional by using the past perfect after 'if' and then 'would have' and the past participle in the second part of the sentence:

  • if + past perfect, ...would + have + past participle

It talks about the past. It's used to describe a situation that didn't happen, and to imagine the result of this situation.

Here's an example from the same site:

He would have been on time for the interview if he had left the house at nine.

Let's look at your sample sentence:

This is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained would be used for that purpose.

First, there is no if anywhere in the sentence. The first part is an unconditional assertion about an attempt at debt collection. The second part is a statement of policy about information obtained. The policy is not conditional on obtaining the information.

Secondly, the would + have + past participle form is missing. The closest phrase is would be used. Let's look at it more closely.

Perfect English Grammar has the following example:

Direct speech:

  • John: "I'll be late".

Reported speech:

  • John said (that) he would be late.

The phrase "any information obtained would be used for that purpose" can be considered reported speech that, when translated to direct speech, becomes something like "we will use any information obtained for that purpose". Again, there is no conditional involved.

So in this case, your question 1 would be answered in the negative, and your question 2 is consequently invalidated.

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This is a surprisingly challenging question! In such a situation, it's usually helpful to break down the components of the sentence and assess them for their meaning both on their own and in context.

First, let's correct the grammatical error. There are two clauses, each with a different subject ("this" and "information"). It's convention in such cases to separate the clauses with a comma:

"This is an attempt to collect a debt, and any information obtained would be used for that purpose."

The first clause, "This is an attempt to collect a debt," is a statement of fact. It's neither conditional nor hypothetical. The fact that it is an attempt obviously allows for an outcome where the attempt is unsuccessful, but while this might have a bearing on the next clause, it doesn't change the factual basis of the first clause. An attempt is an attempt.

The second clause, "any information obtained would be used for that purpose," poses a problem because "would be used" is the conditional tense, yet there is no clause providing the condition. There are two options here: either the conditional tense is incorrectly used, in which case the appropriate wording would be

"This is an attempt to collect a debt, and any information obtained will be used for that purpose,"

or the condition is implied. Native speakers often skip words where the meaning is implied in the choice of tense. When presented with the conditional form would, the reader/listener might infer that there's a conditionality to this clause even if the condition is not overtly stated. The missing "if" would logically relate to the obtaining of the information, so we could restate this clause as "any information if obtained would be used for that purpose."

This amended clause is still skipping some words, as we so often do in English where we love taking shortcuts, sometimes at the expense of meaning. "Obtained" is a past participle but is used as an adjective in the original sentence in describing the information; but we can convert it to its verbal form by adding a principle verb, converting this second clause into two related clauses. Since the second part is conditional (would), the principle clause must be in the subjunctive. Thus the full sentence becomes:

"This is an attempt to collect a debt, and if any information were obtained it would be used for that purpose."

So, to answer your questions directly:

  1. Yes, the intentional use of "would" makes the second clause conditional/hypothetical. This does not rule out, however, the possibility that no conditionality was intended and that "would" has been incorrectly used instead of "will".

  2. There's no "rule", but it's true to say that an unspecified condition can be determined based on contextual information. In the example you've given, the condition "IF any information were obtained" (note the subjunctive) can reasonably be inferred.

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