What is the difference between the following:

  1. Sorry, mate. I wouldn't be able to come for dinner.
  2. Sorry, mate. I won't be able to come for dinner.

In most cases, (2) would be used to say that the speaker was unable to accept the dinner invitation. (1) is unlikely to be found on its own. It needs some kind of explanatory setting, such as ‘Yeh, it would be great if we could get together some time. I wouldn't be able to come for dinner, though, because we have a problem getting a baby-sitter.'

  • What if you have already talked to the guy that you might come, but later on find out that you can't come. Which one would you use? – user17857 Jan 16 '12 at 9:44
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    @Mohammad: In that case, you'd still use (2). – Barrie England Jan 16 '12 at 10:45
  • If I say: I would like to come to Oxford this summer. I don't think it means that it implies that the person is not going to Oxford, right? – Noah May 22 '12 at 6:21
  • @Noah: It means that the speaker is attracted by the prospect of a visit to Oxford this summer, but that it is uncertain whether the visit will take place. As always, much depends on the context - and on the tone of voice in which it is delivered, if spoken. – Barrie England May 23 '12 at 12:09

Often the past tense forms of verbs are used not to indicate past time but to show politeness. Here, I think the use of the past-tense modal would is just softening the refusal. I don't think it has any conditional meaning.

  • While there's nothing "past time" about it, would is the past tense of will just as could is the past tense of can. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/would – Brett Reynolds Jan 17 '12 at 2:55
  • Hmm. I don't like to be put in the position of disagreeing with MW, but I guess I could see my way through to doing so here. Actually, they probably don't intend to say that it's always or only a past tense. Clearly my use of "could" there has nothing whatever to do with "the past" - if anything, it implies "the future" (I may decide to disagree in a minute, once I've had time to organise my thoughts and actually type something! :) – FumbleFingers Jan 17 '12 at 3:13
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    You're confusing grammatical tense with physical time. If a waiter says, "Did you want the fish?" it's past tense, but not past time. If I say "when you arrive, please call me" it's present tense, but future time. If I say "so, I get there at 10:00 and the party's already over" it's present tense but past time. Morphologically, would is always the past tense of will, regardless of whether the time reference is past, present, or future. – Brett Reynolds Jan 17 '12 at 12:09
  • Point taken & downvote reversed. At the time I'd just been reading comments elsewhere on the "atemporal" implications of modal verbs in particular, and the fact that grammatically speaking English doesn't really have a "future tense" at all. I suppose what it comes down to is grammatically speaking English only has two tenses, one primarily associated with the past, the other with the present. A bit like a Frenchman trying to discuss grammatic gender relative to sexual gender, I guess. – FumbleFingers Jan 17 '12 at 13:26
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    Yes, I think that's a good analogy. And thank you! – Brett Reynolds Jan 17 '12 at 15:45
  1. Would is often used in hypothetical situations where you wish something to be the case, but in the current situation it is not going to happen.

    I would very much like to come for dinner, but I have other plans this evening.

  2. Will is used for things that are actually going to happen.

    I will come for dinner.

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