An excellent variation on the "What would you say to a cup of coffee?" and more interesting than the snappy response to the use of the conditional for purely pragmatic purposes, such as "Would I care for one… under what circumstances?"
Mrs. Bob still hasn't shaken her habit, acquired in her youth as a resident of the Bronx, of using "Yawanna" to mean "please." It took me only a couple of decades to stop responding "No, but I'll consider doing it anyway."
A similar misunderstanding occurs in an episode of Father Ted, when he wanted someone to take care of some rabbits in the "Julie Andrews" sense, but the man he was talking to took him to mean the "Al Pacino" sense.
Weber and Fields (19th century German dialect comedians) had a long routine where he only has enough money for one beer, but he doesn't want to look like a cheapskate, so he is coaching his friend that he will offer him a beer and he will reply "I don't care for it". (Presumably because he doesn't speak English very well.) After he thinks he's got it right, they go into the saloon, but he says "I don't care if I do" instead. Here's the script.
"Care to join me in a cup of coffee?"
"Do you think there's room for both of us?"
which I think was Groucho Marx.
Of course, Sili, from the British perspective American English is the alternate reality.
There was a western once where Andy Griffith was playing the evil ranch owner against the innocent farmers. At one point his goons have dragged in one of the sod-busters and Andy's character tells them to "take care of him". When they question what he means he explains that he means "kill him". Later Andy's daughter comes in and he tells the same goon to "take care of her."
What's interesting to me is not the use of "care for" but the use of "would." Why is the conditional used to show politeness? There's no implied "if" – the waitress is standing there with the pot and he's got the cup in front of him. So she's literally asking "Do you want a cup of coffee?" Yet putting the question in the conditional is somehow more deferential.
Throughout my parents' very long marriage, my mother would say, "Do you want to take out the garbage?" and my father would answer, "No, but I will." This was often the jumping-off point for a long and loud shouting match. My sister and I would scurry for cover and watch from the sidelines.
@Bloix: I always thought the implied condition in "would you like X" was "if you had one" or "if I gave you one", since it's generally used for something the person addressed doesn't already have. Clearly, if you wouldn't like a cup of coffee if you had one, then there's no point in giving you one in the first place.
That doesn't explain why it's considered more polite/deferential than "Do you want X", though.
I remember hearing an amusing story 40 years ago featuring the multiple meanings of "who cares?" as its punch line.
A professor of French literature at the University of Texas who had studied with Erich Auerbach at Yale in the 50's was entertaining a group of us graduate students at a drinks and dinner event.
His story was that years before in New Haven he had been invited to tea one afternoon at the Auerbach's. Frau Auerbach entered bearing a tea tray with cookies and asked, "Who wants?" to which Professor Auerbach responded impatiently in his thickly accented English, "No, no, [insert suitable German woman's name here], 'who cares?'
I don't know why (historically) we use "alternate reality" for the concept, but saying alternative reality would imply a choice, which, while fitting with the real Britain, does not fit with Faldone's parallel universe question. Alternate realities are not for most of us an alternative.
It is certainly common to refer to "would" as a past tense formulation. For example, Wikipedia, in the article "Relative and absolute tense", says (in the second paragraph), "'Would' is the past tense of 'will'."
Good points. A past tense does not refer to past time only, it refers to things that are not present in the here and now – this could be because it happened in the past, or it is hypothetical or conditional. This idea of distance is also why a past tense sounds more polite in the examples above.
I still would like to see a non-contrived sentence with would marking the past tense with no help from any other verb in the sentence. I don't dispute being the past tense of will as the origin of would, I just don't see it functioning that way any more.
I think both of those qualify. It still doesn't make the would in "Would you like a cup of coffee?" past. I think that is just a little more subjunctive. But maybe I'm wrong. It wouldn't be the first time and it won't be the last.
In last night's repeat episode of the Big Bang Theory, Leonard's mother visited. She is *very* particular about the way her tea is made. After quizzing him on about 10 points of tea making, she complains that it is cold. Later Sheldon asks her: "Can I make you a cup of tea?" She replies: "I doubt it."
I'm a lawyer, and I was trained to avoid the past tense use of "would" that you describe. Why? Because it implies speculation or reconstruction, rather than recollection.
Suppose I need to show that an executive, Mr. Smith, saw a particular report. I ask a junior executive:
Me: Mr. Jones, I show you a monthly sales report dated February 1, 2003. Did you review that report?
Jones: I reviewed all the monthlies, but I can't remember this one in particular.
Me: What WOULD you do after you reviewed them?
Jones: I WOULD forward them to Mr. Smith.
See? That's terrible.
Me: What DID you do after you reviewed them?
Jones: I FORWARDED them to Mr. Smith.