In the following examples:

  • Why would anyone want to eat something so horrible?
  • Who would live for forever?
  • Why would I ever lie to you?

Is 'would' being used to refer to time in future or past Or Is it just being used to form facts and reasons or arguments?


In these,'would' is signalling that the statements are hypothetical or counterfactual.

"Why would anyone want to eat something so horrible?" indicates that you don't expect anyone is going to eat the horrible something.

"Who would live for forever?'indicates that nobody is going live forever.

"Why would I ever lie to you?" indicates that you do not lie to the listener,

  • Isn't that due to the 'why', not the 'would'?
    – Kris
    May 15 '12 at 6:06
  • 'Why' marks it as a question. 'Would' marks it as hypothetical or counterfactual. "Why did you kick me?" is a question, but it is not hypothetical, because you really have been kicked. "Why would you kick me?" is hypothetical - you have not been kicked. May 15 '12 at 6:24
  • "What would you say?" isn't hypo' either?
    – Kris
    May 15 '12 at 6:42
  • Hmmm! +1 anyway
    – user21032
    May 15 '12 at 6:54
  • "I would hate to eat something horrible." is not a question. Is it still a hypothetical (something you can imagine happening in future) statement? How else who you use 'would' to form reasons?
    – user103212
    May 15 '12 at 7:15

The modal auxiliary verb would was originally the past tense form of the modal will. As such, it has some of the same senses as will, specifically, in this case, that sense of "be willing to" that shows up when will is used in hypothetical clauses:

  • if he will put down the gun,

which means if he is willing to put down the gun.

So the rather idiomatic question construction

Wh- would X Infinitive?


  • Why/Who/When/Where/.. would X be willing to Infinitive?

with the clear implication that the speaker is surprised at the possibility.

Conveying that emotion of surprise is the construction's most important function.
Hence it usually appears as a rhetorical question.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.