The following paragraph is written by us but is representative of what we are getting from clients:
The last week in January, he would walk the snow-covered streets, thinking of his wife who was ill at home. Her cough told him that these would be her last days. During his solitary walk, he would feel the dryness of the cold air in his lungs as if he were breathing death itself. He would avoid going home as long as possible, and when he did, he would pause on the doorstep to steel himself before going in.
So, other than being depressing (Sorry about that, it’s what came out, complete fiction.), what is wrong with this paragraph? The answer is that pesky word “would.” It is not only grammatically incorrect, but gets in the way of the prose.
Dictionary.com gives five definitions for “would.” Most are clearly not applicable and one comes closest to what we think is being attempted here:
4. (used to express repeated or habitual action in the past): We would visit Grandma every morning up at the farm.
Yes, but the action in the above paragraph seems to take place during a specific week. It is not repeated or habitual and we assume this because the wife, who is on the verge of expiration, can logically only be there once and not in the last week of January, year after year after year, while her husband walks the same snow-covered street . Or maybe she is dragging on over multiple year in repeated and habitual death throes. The paragraph is at best ambiguous.
So what is this hypothetical writer and so many of our clients trying to do by employing “would” at every perceived opportunity. Good question. We suspect that people simply associate it with the past tense – or perhaps with a poetic sense of the past tense.
What it does is create a barrier between the reader and the story, a piece of "would," that has to be gotten over to get to the action. See how much clearer and simpler the paragraph is when we chuck “would.”
The last week in January, he walked the snow-covered streets, thinking of his wife who was ill at home. Her cough told him that these were her last days. During his solitary walk, he felt the dryness of the cold air in his lungs as if he were breathing death itself. He avoided going home as long as possible, and when he did, he paused on the doorstep to steel himself before going in.