Before beginning the exercises for this unit, it’s important for you to realize that the verb would is the past tense of will, and the verb could is the past tense of can. For example:

1. (a) He will bake a chocolate pecan pie today.

(b) He would have baked a chocolate pecan pie yesterday if he had found the ingredients he needed.

2. (a) Right now I can hardly wait for my children to get home.

(b) Yesterday I could hardly wait for my children to get home.

Many students have trouble with the helping verb would. It’s a mistake to use it when you really mean the simple past tense. For example, it’s an error to write, “When I lived in New York, I would see at least two plays a week.” Why is this wrong? It’s wrong because the writer simply means that he or she saw at least two plays a week.

The word would should be used only when the writer means that something would happen only if a certain condition were fulfilled. The condition is usually found in a clause that begins with the word if, but the condition can also be implied rather than stated. Notice in 1 (b) that the writer would have baked the pie only if he had found the ingredients he needed. First he had to have the ingredients — that’s the condition that had to be fulfilled before he would bake the pie.

If you’re writing about something that happened often in the past but there’s no condition to be fulfilled, no notion of “if” involved, simply use the past tense. Don’t add would. To check your understanding, mark each sentence below correct or incorrect:

1. Marty would have been on time if he had been given the right directions. ___________

2. Aunt Dana would kiss you if you stood still for a minute. ___________

3. During our teens, we would always watch American Bandstand after school. ___________

4. When Louise and Kim were studying last night, Louise would crack her gum and drive Kim crazy. ___________

5. Matthew would have finished college on time, but his mother contracted a serious illness, and his father needed him full-time in the family business for a year. ___________

Items 1, 2, and 5 are correct because each has a condition to be fulfilled. Items 3 and 4 are incorrect because neither one involves any notion of a condition to be fulfilled. Try to correct the problems in verb tense in 3 and 4.


Underline all verbs and verb phrases. Then correct any examples of inconsistent or illogical verb tense.

1. Several years ago, experts in preventive medicine announced newly found reasons why fish is such an important element in a healthy diet.

2. It was common knowledge that fish was high in protein and low in fat, and for that reason, fish would always be a favorite with the diet-conscious.

3. But it turned out that fish has other benefits, too.

4. Perhaps surprisingly, the varieties of fish that could have been considered relatively high in calories when compared with other fish were the ones most enthusiastically recommended by nutritionists.

5. The so-called fatty fish varieties contained a very beneficial oil, which is made up of something called omega-3 fatty acids.

6. What can these fatty fish oils do for you? According to scientists, they had the power to lower your risk of heart disease, and they offered a certain amount of protection against the agonies of arthritis and asthma.

7. They would also quite possibly reduce the risk of breast cancer, but that is a benefit that scientists would need to research in more depth and over a longer period of time.

8. The fish that have enough oil to be recommended highly are tuna, herring, salmon, whitefish, and large bluefish.

9. Shad, mackerel, and pompano would also be included.

10. People who are concerned about calories should not avoid these varieties of fish; they are “fatty” only when compared with other types of fish.

11. A serving of Chinook salmon, for instance, at 180 calories per three-and-a-half-ounce portion, had more than twice the calories of a similar serving of sole, but it would have only half the calories that were in three-and-a-half ounces of beefsteak.

12. Fortunately, shrimp and lobster are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, and they are not nearly as high in cholesterol as nutrition experts previously had thought.

13. So fish might not be brain food, but it’s a pretty smart thing to eat.