Why is "would" used in this passage?


He retired to his country estate, where he recorded his reflections on politics. Two of his books would become classics in political theory: Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, a set of essays on ancient and modern politics, and The Prince, a potent little book that would shock readers for centuries.

I do not understand why this passage uses "would" and "would become" instead of "will" and "will become". It is a fact that they did, isn't it?


Posted 2015-06-07T16:27:37.553

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It is a story-telling convention. If something still lies in the future from the perspective of the narrative, we speak of it as conditional, not as a present fact. So, within the narrative, Machiavelli has just retired to his country estate: the success of his books still lies in the future. But we know that they will be successful, since for us that success is in the past. So, instead of saying that they will be succesful, we signal the tension between what we know has happened and what (from Machiavelli's perspective) hasn't yet happened by saying that the books would be successful.


Posted 2015-06-07T16:27:37.553

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In this context, saying "will become" means that the event still lies in the future at time of writing. That's not what the author wanted to say. The event is in the past at the time of writing, and in the future at the time we're talking about.

English has (at least) two ways to express this. We use "would" as a past form of "will" as in these examples. It's also possible to say, "two of his books were to become classics" and "a potent little book that was to shock readers".

Steve Jessop

Posted 2015-06-07T16:27:37.553

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+1. "We use 'would' as a past form of 'will'" is really the key point. See http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/future-in-the-past for various ways to express what's known as "the future in the past".

– ruakh – 2015-06-08T06:02:46.393


Sometimes "would" is used as a prognosis from the past. Example:

  • About Magellan: He married the daughter of Diogo Barbosa. He had two daughters from her, both of whom died at a young age. She would die in Seville around 1521.


Posted 2015-06-07T16:27:37.553

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