What are the meanings of 'would's in the example?

6

“Jeremy Finch, I told you you’d live to regret tearing my camellias. You regret it now, don’t you?”
Jem would say he certainly did.
“Thought you could kill my Snow-on-the-Mountain, did you? Well, Jessie says the top’s growing back out. Next time you’ll know how to do it right, won’t you? You’ll pull it up by the roots, won’t you?”
Jem would say he certainly would.
“Don’t you mutter at me, boy! You hold up your head and say yes ma’am. Don’t guess you feel like holding it up, though, with your father what he is.”
Jem’s chin would come up, and he would gaze at Mrs. Dubose with a face devoid of resentment. Through the weeks he had cultivated an expression of polite and detached interest, which he would present to her in answer to her most blood-curding inventions. (Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird)

What’s the meaning of ‘would’s in the example?

Listenever

Posted 2013-04-22T03:01:44.113

Reputation: 25 811

Answers

10

I don't have easy access to the full text, and I certainly don't recall this exact section of the book, but I've no doubt this is an example of would in its habitual aspect.

That's to say, would = used to = was in the habit of. It's often used in narrative contexts such as OP's, but it can be slightly confusing when reported speech is involved.

In order to add "immediacy" to his text, the writer uses reported speech. Logically it's inconceivable Mrs Dubose would be in the habit of using those exact words repeatedly, but it would be distracting if the writer preceded her every utterance with Mrs Dubose would say something like. In fact, Harper Lee quite wisely doesn't even bother explicitly pointing out that it's Mrs Dubose speaking in the first place; the reader is expected to realise this without being told.

It may also be helpful to note @Jim's comment to a closely-related question, which explains very clearly the implications of the fact that would is the past tense of will.


TL;DR: Mrs Dubose would say (was in the habit of saying) things similar to those reported. Jem habitually agreed to all her (somewhat rhetorical) questions.

FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica

Posted 2013-04-22T03:01:44.113

Reputation: 52 587

I think this "would" is not habit but just "said." the past...in this case, this "would" is not very different from the simple past. It feels different from "I would go fishing with my dad." What do you think? – None – 2014-03-13T14:17:04.683

@username901345: Don't interpret "habitual aspect" too literally. All instances of past tense *would* in OP's excerpt are indeed "habitual aspect", in that often/more than once Jem did each of the things specified (or something very similar, it needn't be 100% accurate in such contexts). If simple past were used, that would describe *single instances* of the actions having occurred - each of which might have been a very unusual thing for Jem to have done (but in fact they're typical of the kind of things he used to do). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-03-13T15:45:52.533

So if one's past action. even if just a one time action like "say", is something that can be imagined from his personality or behavior, then would can be used ? – None – 2014-03-13T16:02:47.277

1@username901345: There's some "overlap" in the usages, but note that if I say "StoneyB would agree with me on this point", that's really "present/future" irrealis mode (if he reads this now or in the future then he will agree). If we were talking about a "single past action" (that could have, but probably didn't happen) it would be *"StoneyB would have agreed with me on this point"* (if he had read it, which in fact he didn't). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2014-03-13T18:04:25.420