In Lost Dasmond talks to his future father in law and tells him the following:

What makes you think that I would run away.

I was wondering what tense it was and why 'would' not 'will'?


Would here is an example of what is traditionally called the Second Conditional, and indicates the likely outcome of a hypothetical situation. I don't know Lost, but I'm assuming that Dasmond is confined in some way and saying something like:

  • What makes you think that I would run away if I had the chance?

The sentence:

  • What makes you think that I will run away?

contains no hypothetical aspect. Dasmond's interlocutor thinks that Dasmond is going to run away and Dasmond wants to know why.


On further reflection, it is indeed possible to construe the sentence:

  • What makes you think that I will run away?

as hypothetical, using the First Conditional.

  • What makes you think I will run away if I get the chance.

So the usual principles apply when choosing the conditional 1 over the conditional 2. Namely that the conditional 2 implies that the possibility (in this case) of escaping confinement is more remote.

  • Thanks. Makes sense now. And I also heard this where Jack(an actor in the series) asks the lady about a secret and she tells her: "I can't, because he wouldn't want me to." Any thoughts on this one? Why can't she say: He doesnt want me to or He didnt want me to? – Noah Apr 4 '12 at 6:24
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    If you know that she doesn't want you to say it (e.g. because she has told you this), then use because she doesn't want me to. If you don't know it, then use because she wouldn't want me to to imply that you are sure she would say no if you were to ask her permission to reveal the secret. [Good luck in your tenacious efforts to understand the multiple facets of the word would!] – Shoe Apr 4 '12 at 6:47
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    Again its the hypothetical. The lady doesn't know for a fact that he doesn't want her to because she hasn't actually asked if it's okay but she supposes that if she were to ask he would say, "No." – Jim Apr 4 '12 at 6:49
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    @Noah, your one last question seems like several to me! I recommend posting each specific question separately. There's certainly not enough space to answer them in a comment. – Shoe Apr 4 '12 at 7:07
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    @Noah, If the secret-teller is dead, then you would need to say: Sorry, he didn't want me to tell you. – Shoe Apr 4 '12 at 7:18

To answer this sensibly we need to know what went before. It may be as Shoe says, but there’s another way of looking at it, and that’s as reported speech. The person addressed says ‘I think you will run away’. Although the speaker responds with a question, he is still reporting what the first speaker said. When speech is reported, the time indicated by the verb is shifted backwards. In cases such as this, ‘would’ can be seen as the past tense of ‘will’, and that may be why it’s used here.

  • Barrie, I agree that it is common to backshift from will to would when reporting thinking after the fact. So I think you will run away becomes I thought you would run away when reported. However, in the OP's sentence the main clause (What makes you think) is in the present tense, and it is not usual to backshift in such circumstances. For example, if someone asks you every day : Will you run away? you do not change will to would when reporting to another person. You would say, for example: "He's always asking if I will run away. – Shoe Apr 4 '12 at 10:42
  • @Shoe: You're right and I had thought of that. Ideally, either ‘What made you think that I would run away’ or ‘What makes you think that I will run away.’ As I said, we need the full context to know what was intended. – Barrie England Apr 4 '12 at 11:52

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