I have came across the following sentences:

It seems to me that the arrangement would lend itself to a subcontract agreement structure. In other words:

  1. [Company A] would engage [Company B], who would take on responsibility for all services
  2. [Company B] would subcontract certain of its services to the contractor.
  3. The contractor would then provide [Company A] with a contractual protection.

The benefit of this arrangement means that [Company A] would have direct recourse to both parties...

This arrangement can be complicated and would require an elaborate approach. There remains an element of risk to [Company A] that would be avoided by taking some precautions.

The standard rules most frequently explained in grammar books tell that would can be used:

  • to express general or repeated willingness in the past;

  • to talk about charasteristic behaviour or habit in the past;

  • as the future in the past (in reporting sentences);

  • in unreal conditionals that something might have happened in the past, but it didn't;

  • when we want to advise doing something in a polite manner;

  • in polite requests and offers.

In the examples, the speaker shares his views on how the arrangement may look like to address some issues. However, the example sentences do not seem to fit these rules.

I would be grateful if you could explain the rules for would that these examples follow.

Many thanks in advance.

  • Your a-f list doesn't seem to include the extremely common context illustrated by A Labour government would nationalise the water industry (where using would rather than will at the very least implies a hypothetical scenario; there might never actually be a Labour government in the future). And I think that's the usage in your cited example (perhaps "the arrangement" under discussion might never be implemented at all). Otherwise, it's just the idiomatic If I had to make a prediction, this is what I think would happen (which you might call "polite distancing"). Sep 3, 2018 at 12:50
  • Thanks for this. I like your remark "the extremely common context". It is, indeed, very common, but yet I have never had this explained to me. Sep 3, 2018 at 12:56
  • I can't post an actual Answer, because I don't know (or care much about, to be honest) things like "numbered conditionals", which seem to be relevant here. But perhaps my comment will prompt someone else to describe the situation using standard grammatical / linguistic terminology. But maybe it would be better addressed on English Language Learners anyway. Sep 3, 2018 at 13:04
  • Good! Thanks for sharing the new web. But I hope someone will unfold this to me here. Sep 3, 2018 at 13:14
  • 2
    You should note that one of our most highly-qualified users here (retired linguistics professor John Lawler) regularly points out that classifying usages as "n-conditional" is not generally helpful in understanding how English (or indeed, language in general) works. Sep 3, 2018 at 13:21

1 Answer 1


I'm afraid you've been misled. You mention "the standard rules most frequently explained in grammar books" but don't cite the grammar books nor quote the rules, but they sound like the usual mishmosh one finds online and in many textbooks -- zombie rules, incomplete lists of workarounds labelled as gospel, vague semantic descriptions of meanings, and no usable tests to determine when anything applies. No wonder you're confused.

Would is one of the English Modal Auxiliary Verbs. They all have their own unique grammar, their own special place in a verb phrase, their own sets of meanings -- two varieties of meaning each, in fact -- and their own sets of idioms. They are very very common and very very irregular.

They occur in pairs (except for must): may - might; can - could; shall - should; will - would
These pairs came originally from old Germanic present vs past verb forms (must is a past form, but the present form *muss isn't in Modern English, though it is in German).

The use of would in each of the sentences mentioned above is the same. In all of them, the context is the same future possibility of change, and the individual sentences are hypotheses about possible future results of it. There are two subclasses in the discourse:

  • in one case, would suggests a possible action under the hypothetical changed reality;
    the subjects of would are various companies operating in the changed environment.
  • in the other, would refers to actions that are possible methods of effecting the change;
    the subjects of would are the people bringing about the changed environment.

In both classes, however, the "meaning" of would is its usual epistemic sense of 'potential future', just as the usual epistemic sense of will is 'expected future'.

  • So brilliant that I am overawed!!! Sep 4, 2018 at 13:36
  • Sorry, just trying to be short and not go on and on. Sep 4, 2018 at 13:53

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