When we talk about past habitual or behavioral events, what is the difference between the following two sentences?

Every once in a while I would go to this friend's house and we would get into a discussion. By the time I would realize, it would have taken 4 hours.

Every once in a while I would go to this friend's house and we would get into a discussion. By the time I would realize, it would take 4 hours.

  • Imho, "by the time I would realise" is something North European English speakers are particularly prone to say, but native speakers generally don't. I think it's because they're used to the subjunctive in their own language, and don't realise that actually we tend to avoid it. We'd usually say "by the time I realised". – FumbleFingers Mar 6 '12 at 19:37
  • @FumbleFingers- Even for past typical behaviors? – Noah Mar 7 '12 at 6:09
  • Certainly for any construction like "by the time I...", yes. Though many/most would use the "subjunctive" would in your first sentence. And personally, since the time would have already have elapsed by the time you realised, I would say "By the time I realised, it would have taken 4 hours" – FumbleFingers Mar 7 '12 at 13:21

The first thing to say is that ‘By the time I would realize . . .’ is not grammatical. You need ‘By the time I realized it . . .’

As for the main clause, ‘four hours had passed’ is, as the previous post suggests, the best solution. If you want to use ‘would’ for some reason, it would have to be something like ‘Every once in a while I would go this friend's house and we would get into a discussion. By the time I realized it, the entire visit would have taken 4 hours.'

  • But the grammar book says that we need would for past typical behaviors, isn't that right? Doesn't removing the 'would' part push the sentence to a single occurrence? For example, every Sunday I would call Barrie and we would start talking about politics. Before we would realize, it would have eaten up an hour of our time. Doesn't changing the 'before I would realize' part to 'before I realized' change the meaning as well. – Noah Mar 7 '12 at 6:01
  • @Noah: The habitual nature of the encounter has already been established in the first sentence. The realization of the passing of the four hours needs to show perfective aspect, because, in spite of its being often repeated, in the words of the linguist R L Trask, 'the event is viewed as an unanalysable whole'. – Barrie England Mar 7 '12 at 7:01
  • Then can we say: "Every Sunday I would call Barrie. We started talking about politics. And before we realized, it took us 4 hours." Seems totally broken to me, but I am curious about the wholeness as to what extent that can be stretched. In addition, how would you rephrase this sentence as a native speaker, conveying the same thought as best as possible. – Noah Mar 7 '12 at 7:27
  • @Noah: Your version is fine except for the last sentence. A native speaker would say something like 'Before we realized it, four hours had flown by'. If you wanted to emphasize the fact that the same thing happened at each encounter, you could say 'Before we realized it, four hours had flown by. This happened every time.' – Barrie England Mar 7 '12 at 7:41
  • My question is about explaining a series of events. My sentences don't seem to be properly connected anymore. I started with would and then jumped to the normal form and I used full stop after every sentence. Is would implicitly implied from the second and third sentence? Raymond Murphy says in his book 'English Grammar in Use' that would is necessary for past regular actions. – Noah Mar 7 '12 at 9:27

They both use would four times, which is odd, but I see what you're driving at.

Edit: to explain the differences as I see them:

the first way:

Every once in a while I would go to this friend's house and we would get into a discussion.

You begin describing a series of events that all occurred in the past.

By the time I would realize,

but once you've said this, you're describing a future possibility, which disagrees with the tense of your introduction.

For example, I don't live close enough to the office to go home for lunch. By the time I would get to my apartment, I would have to turn around and go back to work.

That said, you can't use realize on its own in this context. You need to use it, which you do:

it would have taken 4 hours.

but it should immediately follow realize.

Bottom line, the first sentence wins. Would have taken is correct, because it keeps you in the past.

However, may I suggest:

Every once in a while I would go this friend's house and we would get into a discussion. Before I knew it, four hours had passed.

  • Nice answer. I would have suggested the same thing. – J.R. Mar 6 '12 at 19:01
  • 3
    Or "four hours would have passed". Very nice answer. – Peter Shor Mar 6 '12 at 19:49
  • @PeterShor, I very nearly went there. Thank you both for your kindness. :) – cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Mar 6 '12 at 19:57
  • I may have made my answer worse. – cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Mar 7 '12 at 2:05

The stumbling block here appears in the final phrase with a pronoun with no clear antecedent (what it refers to) and a strangely inappropriate verb (whatever it is, it seems to take time). Let's try a different choice of final phrase: By the time I would realize, we would have talked for 4 hours. sounds fine, while ... we would talk for 4 hours. doesn't fit here at all. Does that answer your question?


As noted in other responses the first extract is correct, if somewhat inelegant. The second sentence of the second extract does not seem right. In its original form it reads:

By the time I would realize, it would take 4 hours.

If we remove the habitual would, it reads:

By the time I realized, it took 4 hours.

This obviously doesn't work, but could be reworded as:

It took 4 hours before I realized.

And then replacing the habitual would we get:

It would take 4 hours before I would realize (e.g. how long we had been talking).
  • @Shoe- The rest of the commentators say that it's not appropriate to use 'by the time I would realize', do you think I need to change that? We have to keep in mind that I am talking about past typical behaviors. – Noah Mar 7 '12 at 6:05
  • @Noah, The repetition of the "would" in each of the clauses is inelegant and unnecessary. I certainly would not construct two consecutive sentences the way you have above. However, I do not consider "by the time I would realise" to be ungrammatical in the context you cite. It is certainly grammatical in a sentence such as: "My grandfather liked to play tricks on us. By the time I would realise that he was joking, he had started on his next story." – Shoe Mar 7 '12 at 8:37
  • @Shoe- What is the difference between the following:1) When we were kids we would swim every afternoon. 2) When we were kids we swam every afternoon. – Noah Mar 7 '12 at 9:30
  • There is no essential difference except that would swim places a greater emphasis on the habitual nature of the activity. The problem here and with many questions on this site is that we are asked to comment on decontextualised sentences, but all natural communication takes place in a context that determines the speaker's/writer's choice of a particular form. If I were reminiscing about my childhood I would probably use "would swim" etc. .... – Shoe Mar 7 '12 at 10:06
  • ..... But if I were comparing my childhood with my that of kids today I would probably not use "would". "When we were kids we swam every afternoon, but today's generation spends its time on Facebook." – Shoe Mar 7 '12 at 10:07

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