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I was watching "The Big Bang Theory" and in episode 07 of season 3, Leonard asked his girlfriend the following question

Penny: I hear you don’t like my stuffed animals, my driving or my punctuality.

Leonard: What? Who would tell you something like that? Why would you tell her something like that?

Penny: It doesn’t matter why he [Sheldon] told me. It’s true, isn’t it?

I'm wondering why he didn't use simple past: "Who told you something like that?"
What's the difference?

Source: Show Script

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    The would here carries a modal aspect of disbelief that there actually was someone who professed such a thing.
    – deadrat
    Aug 21, 2016 at 6:23
  • As deadrat's comment suggests, the question "who would tell you something like that?" expresses the same note of generalized disapproval as "what kind of person would tell you something like that?" or "why would any [reasonable or honorable] person tell you something like that?" The implication of the construction is that anyone who would tell Leonard's girlfriend such a thing deserves censure or condemnation.
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 21, 2016 at 6:54
  • Could you provide the name of the episode, and quote what was said before Leonard asked Penny his question?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 21, 2016 at 7:52
  • Using would also makes it more like a rhetorical question. "Who told you that" sounds like a legitimate request for information. But that's not always the case, depending on how the question is asked (consider Urkel's "Did I do that?" or Arnold's "What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?").
    – Barmar
    Aug 24, 2016 at 22:08

1 Answer 1

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"who told you that?" means that someone certainly told you something and it is real because it happened in the past. "Who would tell you that?" doesn't mean someone told you something. It means that "I am wondering who was going to tell you that". Would + verb means that we imagine a situation that is not real, the one that didn't happen in the past. Just like in this sentence: I would love to have a race car, but the reality is I don't have it. There are many uses of "would" and it is just one of them.

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    No, the question is addressed to someone who has apparently already been told something. The would expresses disbelief (or as SY notes) disapproval of anyone telling such a thing. Going to tell implies that the telling hasn't happened yet. It has.
    – deadrat
    Aug 21, 2016 at 7:54
  • There are indeed many uses of would. Here are a couple of dozen: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/87938/…
    – deadrat
    Aug 21, 2016 at 8:00
  • Yes, you're right. I didn't read the dialogue. You're absolutely right Aug 21, 2016 at 9:40

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