Tentative "would"?

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Andrew Kaczynski, "Pence calls Assange tweets about 'Pence takeover' of White House 'absurd' and 'offensive'", CNN News 3/14/2017:

Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday that two tweets from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claiming a possible "Pence takeover" of the White House were "absurd" and "frankly offensive."

"I would find all of that dialogue to be absurd and frankly offensive," Pence told radio host Laura Ingraham.

I was struck by the vice president's use of would in that quote. He might have said simply "That's absurd", or focused on his own perspective on Assange's tweets by saying "I find all of those claims absurd". But "I would find all of that dialogue to be absurd"?

Since I'm always suspicious of journalists' quotations, I went to the audio:

Laura Ingraham: um Julian Assange, of course the wikileaks founder, has
tweeted out two fairly uh controversial incendiary things today.
He said that Clinton stated privately this month that she is quietly pushing
for a Pence takeover. She stated that Pence
is predictable hence defeatable,
and they quote two uh sources uh intelligence community sources
who didn't say that you agree with this takeover but that
uh intelligence community officials close to Pence stated privately this month
that they're planning on a Pence takeover.
What's your reaction to that?

Mike Pence: I would find that-
all of that
dialogue to be absurd
and frankly offensive.

So minus a small self-correction, the quote is accurate.

And apparently this is what CGEL (9.8.3) calls the "tentative preterite" use of would, as in "I would like to see him tomorrow" or "They would appear to have gone on without us". As CGEL explains with respect to the second example,

appear is a lexical modal of medium strength, qualifying my commitment to the truth of the modalized proposition: compare unmodalized They have gone on without us. Would then adds further modal qualification, so that [the sentence] provides a double hedge against being wrong.

It seems odd to me that Mr. Pence felt the need to hedge here, first by referring to "that dialogue" rather than to the takeover idea itself, second by describing his reaction to the "dialogue" rather than characterizing Assange's assertions themselves, and third by adding the further modal qualification would in "would find all of that dialogue to be absurd".

But maybe this is just a fixed expression signaling politeness for him, like "I would like to X" for "I want to X".




  1. Keith said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 5:01 am

    Pence is commenting on an uncorroborated, unconfirmed statement. To rephrase slightly, by deleting superfluous fluff:

    Julian Assange has tweeted that Clinton stated privately that she is pushing
    for a Pence takeove

    Pence is replying to a "he said that she said that this other guy is going to become boss".

    For me, Pence's "would" is in the sense of "I would be offended if it turned out to be true that she's been saying all that".

  2. Stan Carey said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 5:11 am

    I wonder if there's a dialectal element to it, given Pence's background. In Irish English would has greater scope and is sometimes used in indicative mood (e.g., She'd be a journalist = She is a journalist.)

  3. Chips Mackinolty said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 5:51 am

    @ Stan Carey, perhaps a tinge of the dialect of the lawyer, as well, as in "if it would please your honour", "it would imply", "it would appear to be ultra vires", etc.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 5:55 am

    "If that turned out to be true, then I'd find that absurd and frankly offensive" is my interpretation. And if it didn't turn out to be true, there's nothing there to be offended about and maybe even to find absurd.

  5. Evan Harper said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 7:07 am

    It seemed obvious to me that Pence's use of would was a tic, signalling not so much politeness as moderation and seriousity. It's common among technocratic Washington wonk types, like using push back for "disagree" or "challenge." Pence is actually a social conservative ideologue with a shaky grasp of policy detail, but he's a very sharp politician and he's clearly positioning himself to be the Gerald Ford "return to normalcy" guy in case Trump blows everything up and leaves office the hard way. Congenitally moderate, technocratic, Beltway-friendly speech patterns are a part of that.

  6. Dave B. said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 9:46 am

    In my mind it was an elided "[if I were you] I would be …" At least that's how I've used and interpreted such things in the past. Like a parent might say "I would be careful about putting my hand in that alligator's mouth [if I were you]."

  7. R Steinmetz said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 10:16 am

    I think "would" indicates that the entire proposition is rather dubious.

    It boils down to an unreliable source quoting unnamed people saying an out of power politician is pushing for a coup.

    Of course answering a reported directly is usually bad idea in this environment, the loonies on one side of the other will pick it up and run with it..

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 10:30 am

    I agree with Evan Harper: it sounds like just a habit of speech, maybe originally intended to suggest moderation and seriousness. Compare "I would argue". Here's an example from COCA:

    "SCHIEFFER# What do you think about how the court has handled this? STRASSEL# Well, we could — we could hope that they would resolve it, but they haven't up until now. And, in fact, I would argue everything that's happening in Alabama is precisely because the Supreme Court has just completely punted on this issue."

    People can look at some of the 431 hits on "I would argue" at the COCA spoken corpus. I think they'll easily find examples with no hedging, no implied "if" clause, and no Irish dialect. However, I think Chips Mackinolty's mention of lawyers might be on target.

    "I would find" is less common, and many more examples of it are obviously conditional or have the meaning of "I used to find". Here's a relevant one from the detective Mark Fuhrman:

    "They have not made any statement in that regard, so what is the blunt force object? Well, we certainly do not know, but I would find it highly unlikely that they couldn't establish that she crawled up onto a tower and fell off."

  9. R Steinmetz said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 10:31 am

    I think "would" indicates that the entire proposition is rather dubious.

    It boils down to an unreliable source quoting unnamed people saying an out of power politician is pushing for a coup.

    Of course answering a reporter directly is usually bad idea in this environment, the loonies on one side of the other will pick it up and run with it..

  10. KevinM said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 11:02 am

    Politeness and conversational softening; indication that I'm commenting, not being called upon to take an official stance; plus a content-free overtone of deliberativeness, something a politician usually wants to convey.

  11. Rube said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 11:36 am

    You know, I'm pretty sure that's the way I talk, and I have no idea why. If I can't explain it for myself, I've got no hope for Pence.

  12. Michael Watts said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 12:03 pm

    I think it's also possible that "I would find that dialogue to be absurd and offensive" is the product of hearing "what's your reaction to that?" and mentally substituting "what would you say to that?" Sometimes your idea of how the conversation is going to go beats out what you actually hear.

  13. AntC said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 5:19 pm

    I agree with @Keith, @R Steinmetz

    Assange is turning out to be as much a peddler of fake news as Trump. Pence doesn't want to give 'the oxygen of publicity' to any of it. The would is a distancing mechanism; he's a canny politician.

  14. chris said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 9:06 pm

    I would like to see him tomorrow

    I analyze this one as a real conditional: If it turns out that I do see him tomorrow, then I'll like it, but I don't presently know if I will see him or not.

    Even "I'd like to talk to Jim right now" has the same kind of interpretation, because "right now" typically actually means "in an unspecified short time". It's not the kind of sentence you would expect someone to say if Jim was in the room, because they might as well just start talking to Jim instead.

    Maybe "I would like to say…" introducing something that you are, in fact, saying right now, would be a better example.

    P.S. I don't think I perceive any difference in modal strength between "appear" and "would appear". Compare, e.g., "This dog appears to be asleep" and "This dog would appear to be asleep" — don't they describe the exact same dog in interchangeable ways? They are both different from "This dog is asleep", but I don't see that they're different from each other.

  15. Liz OShea said,

    March 16, 2017 @ 3:34 am

    Like @Stan Carey, I immediately recognised this 'would' structure. It's common, everyday speech in Ireland, particularly if you're trying to be polite. And Irish politicians don't open their mouths if they don't have this kind of 'would' phrase — well, not to hand, I suppose — to tongue.

  16. Jonfrum said,

    March 17, 2017 @ 12:57 pm

    Rereading the quote, I come up with this interpretation. He's saying that not only is this particular claim by Assange absurd, but that he 'would' find any other such claims equally absurd and offensive. So it's 'not only is this claim wrong, but everything the guy says is wrong.'

  17. dwishiren said,

    March 18, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

    How does "would" work here?

    – In British English, the comma WOULD go after the closing quotation mark.
    – In American English, the phrase "go to hospital" WOULD not be correct. One of the articles "a" or "the" WOULD be necessary.

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