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In the following passage, what tense is the second sentence?

John said goodbye to his mother. He would never see her again.

I know it's not the past tense, which would be "He never saw her again."

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  • 3
    Does this answer your question? Use of 'would' in place of the past simple - "would" is a modal verb expressing futurity from the point of view of the past.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 10, 2022 at 11:10
  • The past of see is saw. The past of say is said. What verb do you think would is an inflection of, and why?
    – tchrist
    Oct 10, 2022 at 15:06
  • 1
    @StuartF Time reference, tense and constructions are different things. The linked to question answers the first, not the second. It's the second, or possibly third, which the OP is asking about. Not the first, though :) Oct 10, 2022 at 15:11
  • Related and possible duplicates: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.
    – tchrist
    Oct 10, 2022 at 15:24
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Reopened, with some cross-question references and retagging provided.
    – tchrist
    Oct 10, 2022 at 15:32

6 Answers 6

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Back "translation" to the (historical) present tense: John says goodbye to his mother.
He will never see her again.

Ah, but we want the past tense. So, we write:

John said goodbye to his mother. He would never see her again.

Here, the past tense of will is would.

MacMillan Dictionary

In some cases would can be used as the past tense of will, for example, in indirect speech introduced by a verb in the past tense: I promised that I would visit her the next day.

That is the past tense of: He promises that he will visit her one day.

Some linguists like to just call this particular usage a modal. I don't.

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  • Would is a modal auxiliary verb, like will, can, could, shall, should, may, might, must, and sometimes need and dare. They have their own very irregular syntax and meanings. Calling some of them "past tense" is historically accurate, but the usage died away except for idioms long ago, and modals don't otherwise inflect for tense, and rarely have any tenselike meanings, so I'm one of the linguists who don't call some, but not other, uses of would "past tense". Oct 10, 2022 at 16:26
  • Sometimes in English, the word modal refers to the concrete class of inflectionally defective English auxiliary verbs lacking both present and past participles as well as inflections by person and number. A more abstract sense refers to the modal duality of certain verbs and related periphrastic verbal expressions in which either the epistemic modality of factual necessity, probability, possibility &c (That would be the milkman) or the deontic modality of permission, obligation, recommendation, prohibition &c (Would you please shut the door?) applies.
    – tchrist
    Oct 10, 2022 at 16:37
  • So just what modal “means” in a given context depends on whether one is talking about the syntax and morphology or about the semantics and meaning. These two overlap when we notice, for example, that modal verbs cannot be used for imperative statements, the kind with an implied you for their subjects like Do be quiet or Go see your mother. That's because imperatives require an infinitive inflection but modal verbs are also defective in that they lack infinitives.
    – tchrist
    Oct 10, 2022 at 16:46
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    Yeah, sometimes would is a modal and sometimes it is past tense. I said I would go [if he went, too]=conditional. I said I would go [past of: I say I will go]. Those are different and that's all I'm saying. Not covering every case "in the book". I wonder why you feel the need...
    – Lambie
    Oct 10, 2022 at 17:17
  • @tchrist, if you believe that your remarks about would are relevant to its use in the OP's example, then why don't you post them as an answer (an explain how they apply to that particular example)? If they are about some other uses of would and not about that one, then they do not constitute an objection to Lambie's very straightforward answer.
    – jsw29
    Oct 11, 2022 at 15:57
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'He would never see her again.' refers to the past.

'Would' is the past form of 'will'.

'He will never see her again' refers to the future.

Direct: He said to her, 'I will never see you again'.

Indirect: He told her that he would never see her again.

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    I posted the same thing, basically.
    – Lambie
    Oct 10, 2022 at 20:02
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In a comment, Professor Lawler argued:

Would is a modal auxiliary verb, like will, can, could, shall, should, may, might, must, and sometimes need and dare. They have their own very irregular syntax and meanings. Calling some of them "past tense" is historically accurate, but the usage died away except for idioms long ago, and modals don't otherwise inflect for tense, and rarely have any tenselike meanings, so I'm one of the linguists who don't call some, but not other, uses of would "past tense".

Although the comment does not explicitly say so, it, in virtue of being posted on this page, pragmatically implicates, that the sentence that the question is about cannot be classified as to tense. In the comments that followed, tchrist defended an apparently stronger claim, that we should not use tense to describe modal verbs, such as would, at all.

(This is posted here as a 'community wiki' answer to make it easier for the future visitors to the page to see the full array of possible views of the matter.)

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The term tense is defined in Merriam-Webster as:

a distinction of form in a verb to express distinctions of time or duration of the action or state it denotes

So, it's a verb form, not its meaning. If you disagree with this definition, you should edit your question. Assuming you don't, let's find out what tense the verb was and would are here:

a. I was wondering if you would agree with the definition.

I'm sure you'll agree that the verb was is easily the past form of the verb be, despite the fact that was does not necessarily describe a past situation. Then, I'm sure you'll also agree that the verb would is easily the past form of the verb will, despite the fact that would does not necessarily describe a past situation.

Now, let's have a look at your example:

John said goodbye to his mother. He would never see her again.

Now, I'm sure you'll agree that the verbs said and would are in their respective past forms, regardless of whether they describe past situations or not.

If you're one of those people who argue that would is not the past form of will, and that would is an entirely different verb than will, or that would is not even a verb, good luck with your question, because there's no answering your question then.

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The progressive/continuous tense is formed with a 'verb chain' (verbs with auxiliary verbs, etc) and add the present participle (-ing).

The combination in "He would never see her again" using 'would never' establishes a condition that begins now and continues into the future. Would can also imply a future action like in "I would tap dance" because it is an auxiliary/helping verb; it modifies the action.

EDIT: Though not utilizing a present participle, He would never see her again could be modified to He would not be seeing her again or He is not seeing her again as pointed out by @Mari-Lou A. However, since would is a modal verb, it could be seen as either a past progressive or present progressive. That is, an event that has already started (or starting now) and continuing into the future. Though, neither tense inherently changes the cognitive association of the phrase, "He would never see her again"

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  • Isn't "He would not be seeing her again." the progressive/continuous future in the past "tense"? OR "He would never be seeing her again. The PRESENT continuous would be "He isn't seeing…”
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 11, 2022 at 19:45
  • As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Oct 11, 2022 at 21:03
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It’s the future imperfect.

Because, we are standing in the present, with John. At the time at which he is saying goodbye to his mother. We've flown back in time, in order to do that, in this sentence. We are looking back but actually, we are with him, back then.

‘He would’ is looking forward to the future, from back then, where he 'never sees her again'.

So it's the future imperfect.

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