Phrase of the day: would’ve thought

Last Wednesday evening, I took a train from Preston back home to London. As we were nearing Euston station, I left my seat and went to wait near the door. A mother and her teenage daughter were already there, and the girl was messing about, pretending to open the door – in order to get a reaction from her mum. They then had this brief – but intriguing – conversation:

Stop it! Though you would’ve thought it was probably locked.

> You would think so, yeah.

In a recent post on teaching grammar, I suggested that much of what students learn to do with grammar is rooted more in awareness and acquisition of relatively fixed and formulaic ways of saying things that just happen to contain certain grammatical structures – and that this often seems to help more than studying rules. I can’t think of many bits of language this is truer of than the chunk we’re looking at today.

Would’ve thought – and it’s slightly less hedged cousin would think – is hardly ever taught in coursebooks and simply studying rules and generalisations about the fact that would is often used to create distance would be most unlikely to help students get to grips with the way it’s often used. In essence, the conversation means something like this”

Stop it! Though I’m guessing the doors are probably locked (whilst acknowledging I might be wrong)

> Yes, that’s what i think too (though I could be wrong too!)

Interestingly, the uncertainty is often signalled not only by using would’ve thought, but by then also using an extra would with the verb that follows. For example:

I would’ve thought it would take at least a couple of days.

I wouldn’t have thought it’d be a problem.

There’s also the related – and fairly common – phrase Who would’ve thought it? – often used to express amused surprise or irony.

He’s been arrested and charged with corruption.

> Really? Who would’ve thought it? So all of those rumours must’ve been true.


Quite possibly, it’s enough if high-level learners can simply recognise this chunk and understand it’s meaning, but there are two obvious ways it could be practised, both of which require a little bit of advance planning by the teacher. You could give a few sentences containing the chunk and ask students to phrase each one in a less hedged / tentative way. To make this easier, you could give one or two words for students to use in each rewrite. For instance:

1 I wouldn’t have thought it’d make much difference. (don’t / will)

2 I would’ve thought it’d cost around two hundred pounds. (should)

3 You would’ve thought they’d be able to do something about it, wouldn’t you? (can’t believe / can’t)

If you want a slightly more demanding, productive task, you can simply flip the exercise above round and give less tentative sentences and tell students to rewrite using would’ve / wouldn’t have. To make this easier, you could give the sentences starters for the rewrites, like this:

1 I don’t think it’ll make much difference.

I wouldn’t ….. .

2 It should cost somewhere around £200.

I would’ve ….. .

One final thing you could do is to ask students to write two or three predictions they think will prove to be true, but that they might not wrong about. You could give an example or two yourself to help out. Monitor what they come up with, help out where necessary and then put students in groups to compare their ideas – and say if they agree or not.

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