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Grammarology 2.0: Meanings of the past tense

After promising to publish every two or three weeks, this is only the second Grammarology column in two months. So it goes. Keep, sending in your grammar questions. Anything from the trivial to the profound is welcome. And we love your comments.

Q: Ralph Duncans wrote:

What do you think would happen if people budgeted?

What do you think will happen if people budget?

My student does not know when to use will and would. I told her that it depends if her question was present or past tense. She does not understand. Is there an easier explanation?

A: Let’s start by taking the extra stuff out of the sentences. The do you think part isn’t relevant to the question, so we’ll remove it. Now we have:

  • What would happen if people budgeted?
  • What will happen if people budget?

As Ralph says, in the first question, we’re using the past tense of will, which is would and the past tense of budget, but in the second we’re using the present tense of will and budget. The missing part of the explanation, though, is that tenses have meanings. And just like words, sometimes those meanings are different. For example, in play with toys, and play a movie, we find related but different meanings of play. Most of the time play means something like “do something fun with toys,” but it sometimes means “start showing a movie.”

Past tense is like that. Most of the time, past tense means past time, but sometimes it means we are trying to be polite (e.g., Would you mind opening the door? or Did you want the bill now?), and sometimes it means that we think something is unlikely or impossible.

In Ralph’s first sentence above, this is the meaning: we don’t think people are likely to budget. In contrast, in the second question, we see people budgeting as a real possibility. All these meanings of the past tense are different, but they all suggest a distance or remoteness: remote time, remote social relationships, or remote possibility.

Bonus material

If the idea of will and would being present and past tense seems confusing to you, you’re in good company. Unfortunately, this is a whole post on its own, so perhaps I’ll deal with that in my next column. For now, I’ll just assert that each of the modals has a present tense form (may, can, shall, will, and must) and all but must have a past tense form (might, could, should, and would).

Grammarology 2.0 aims to take the discussion of grammar up a notch or two (your mileage may vary) and should appear about once every few weeks. It’s written by Brett Reynolds, who teaches EAP at Humber College and is just about as nerdy about grammar as you can get. He’s is always happy to take questions, which you can send to

Brett Reynolds teaches English in Humber's EAP program. (OK, who's fooling who with this third-person stuff?) I speak Japanese, remember a fair bit of French, and know something about a few other languages too. I'm crazy about grammar, and spend too much time online for my own good.