June 11, 2013

Woulda Shoulda Coulda

How Much Would?

Native Polish speakers tend to overuse ‘would’ and ‘could’ in English, as a result of transferring the Polish conditional mood or “gentle form” indicated with the particle -by (e.g. śpiewał(a)bym and chciał(a)bym meaning “I would sing” and “I would like," respectively) into English.

How much ‘would’ is too much would? How much could you ‘would’ until you shouldn’t? This begs the age old question and popular kids tongue twister:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
If a woodchuck could chuck wood?
He would chuck, he would, as much as he could,
And chuck as much as a woodchuck would
If a woodchuck could chuck wood.

Say it as fast as you can (my record is 4.49 seconds!) and you have an idea what a native English speaker might experience when listening to a Polish speaker overuse ‘would’ and ‘could.’ This post will give you an idea of why it happens and how you can easily spot the differences in order to use ‘would’ and ‘could’ more naturally.

Conditional Mood in English

Grammatical mood is a basic linguistic component that represents the attitude of a speaker, and signals modality (or modalność in Polish). The conditional mood implies that an utterance is theory-based, and dependent on some sort of circumstantial events.

There are three types of conditional moods in English, but we're only interested in the third:

1. Factual
“When I’m sick, I vomit” (Every time I’m sick, I vomit).

2. Predictive
“If I’m sick, I will vomit” (If I’m sick in the future, I will vomit).

3a. Speculative (Past)
“If you didn’t vomit all over me, you would have had a chance” (first-hand experience anyone?)

The reason 3a is speculative, of course, is because no one can take back what was done in the past, so any retelling of the story can only be speculation as to what happened afterwards.

3b. Speculative (Future)
"If I don’t vomit on you ever again, would you give me another chance?"

Conditional Mood in Polish

The conditional mood or “gentle” form in Polish has exactly the same function in English, at least in spirit. The key historical difference is that Polish grammaticized its conditional form (with the by particle), while English left it up to situational context and things like verb tenses. This lends itself to some differences in how conditional or gentle forms are perceived in each culture, and slightly changes when they should be used. It means that Polish natives inadvertently transfer the components of the Polish conditional form into English, even when it’s not necessarily appropriate.


Take the following example I received from one of my clients, a Polish native speaker. This is his English text requesting features for a future application.

We would like to have an application that would create X.

Chcielibyśmy mieć aplikację, która stworzyłaby / by stworzyła X. (Direct translation).

In the case above, English speakers might take notice that it seems excessively wordy, a bit redundant with two ‘woulds', and might be considered over-polite and therefore, strange.

Polish speakers might notice that the Polish example has sort of an idea or brainstorming feel to it, as the by-particle gives emphasis on possibility not necessarily only gentility.

Compare this with the removal of the gentle/conditional forms:

We want an application that creates X.

Chcemy aplikację, która tworzy X.

In my opinion, this one sounds more direct, confident, and “want” is just so much stronger than “would like”. It removes the shaky ground of speculation and clearly expresses the desire.

If you remove the speculation in the Polish example, you get a slightly different effect. The utterance is concrete, and no longer in the brain-storming, idea-space, but a hard decision.

The emphasis on what is being added or removed here is key. For an English speaker, it’s more about gentility. For a Polish speaker, it’s more about possibility.

Another illustration:

Chciałabym jej powiedzieć, co o niej naprawdę myślę.
I would like to tell her what I really think about her. (I wish I could, but I’m probably not going to.)

Chcę jej powiedzieć, co o niej naprawdę myślę.
I want to tell her what I really think about her. (and I'm going to!)

Polish speakers will see the difference here. In the first example, the particle by contributes to the possibility of wanting to tell her what you think about her, versus the reality of actually wanting to tell her in the sentence without “by”. In English, this specific distinction doesn’t exist without context. They essentially mean the same thing, one just sounds a bit more polite.

Good usage of would/could

  • When formulating a polite question, speculation, request, or offer
    • Why would I pay more for these services?
    • Could we avoid traffic today please?
    • Would you come here a second?
    • Could you take a look at this?
    • I would like to invite all of you to dinner.
    • I could help you with your homework.
  • When you want a condition fulfilled from someone
    • If you could come tomorrow, I will be better prepared.
    • I would be so happy if you came better prepared next time.
  • When talking about what someone said in the past (about the future)
    • She told me she would have it finished by tomorrow.
    • She said she couldn’t make it today.

Poor usage of would/could

  • When dealing with “possibility” in Polish (and not “gentility”). Be aware of Polish -by forms as speculation versus gentle language.
  • When you want to display confidence, certainty, or directness. 'Would' and 'could' are generally soft forms that indicate passivity.
  • When ‘want/will’ can easily take the place of ‘would'
  • When ‘can’ easily takes the place of ‘could’.


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