Below is the context at issue:

Interviewer: You would like to see a change in our whole approach to aging. You advocate equality – a society for all ages. What (1) would this look like?

Interviewee: This is easy enough to state but achieving it is quite another thing. Simply put, a society for all ages would mean no one (2) would be disadvantaged by their age. The lifelong aging process (3) would have a high public profile... In middle age, people (4) would update their skills, take preventative health measures and plan for the later years.

I know (1) would refers to the future, so does (2) and (3). But, how about (4)? Does that refer to a simple past or repetitive behaviors or both?

I would say it could be both; what would you say?

  • If such a change were to be brought about, all the following would ensue. They're all introducing hypothetical consequences. Admittedly, (4) has a slightly different nuance, involving some element of free will that is envisioned not to scupper the vision. May 23, 2020 at 12:48
  • Yes: past time "would" in your example expresses repetitive behaviour, something that happened regularly in the past.
    – BillJ
    May 23, 2020 at 13:04
  • Thank you for your answer.
    – user381476
    May 24, 2020 at 5:17

1 Answer 1


Will is a modal verb, and besides being used for situations in the future, it has modal meaning(CaGEL 188-194):

epistemic (what is possible or probable)

She will beat him in under an hour.

volition (what one is willing to do or desires)

I will solve this problem.


He will lie in bed all day, reading trashy novels.

deontic (what is required)

You will report back for duty on Friday morning.

and can be used for situations in the past, or future.

The match will have been cancelled. [past]

The match will be cancelled. [future]

He will be at his mother's now. [present]

The preterite form would may be used for situations in the present or future that are modally remote - situations that are counterfactual or deemed unlikely (CaGEL p198-200). The thing that makes them so here is the condition that these changes take place, something implicitly viewed as much less than certain.

(1) is then a question about a situation different from the current one, and falls into the counter-factual category, hence the use of would. In (2) - (4), the situation described is one that is contingent on the change desired and thus unlikely or at least different from the currently expected future situation. The mix of modal meaning in these seems mostly epistemic - what the speaker deems probable if their plan were enacted. (4) seems to have a fair amount of volition and propensity in the modal meaning as well.

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