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    Question use of "say" and "would not"


    The Story of Doctor Dolittle has the following sentence in it...

    Squire Jenkins and the Parson say they wouldn't come near your house again - no matter how ill they are.

    I was asked why "say" is not "said" or why " would not" is not "will not"....

    I am at a loss as to how to explain this even though I know it sounds correct.

    Any ideas or explanations would be appreciated.

  1. rewboss's Avatar

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    Re: use of "say" and "would not"

    I assume that this sentence is spoken by one of the characters. In that case, the present tense for "say" is correct: it means more than just "speak", it means "to be of the opinion that..." -- the logic here is that if you ask them, they will say, "That's right, I won't go near that person's house again". They didn't just say it once, they will say it again whenever you ask them.

    The clause "...they wouldn't come near..." is an example of indirect speech. Here's what the Squire and the Parson actually said:

    "We won't come near his house again -- no matter how ill we are."

    Those are the actual words spoken -- it's direct speech. If you report what people said but don't use the exact words -- instead, you just report on the content of what they said -- you use indirect speech. Very often, we use a different tense in indirect speech. Some grammar books have half a page explaining that "the present perfect changes to the past perfect" and so on, but it's simpler than that: if the direct speech has a verb in the present tense form, change it to the past tense.

    So "will not come..." contains the present tense "will", and the past tense of that is "would".

    You don't need to do this all the time, though. In this case it's not necessary, because "say" is in the present tense, meaning that the two people would say the same if you asked them now. We usually use this "sequence of tenses" (as it's sometimes called) when the statements are no longer valid: "He said he would be there on Tuesday, but he wasn't", for example. The character who is speaking here seems to get a bit confused as to whether he should use the sequence or not: he says, "they wouldn't..." but "how ill they are". Ideally, it should either be: "they won't" and "how ill they are"; or "they wouldn't" and "how ill they were". I hate to criticise a published writer for his style, but maybe he was just writing authentic speech: people are naturally less accurate when they speak than when they write, for lots of reasons.

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