Conditional Tense Not Always the Equivalent of 'Would'

Tense Can Be Used for Speculation About the Past

feet at rest at the movies
Si tuviera dinero, podría ir al cine. (If I had money, I could go to the movies.). Photo by Juanedc.com; licensed via Creative Commons.

As a general rule, as explained in our introduction to the Spanish conditional tense, the English "would" is the equivalent of the Spanish conditional. But there are exceptions. The major ones are listed below:

Examples of when the conditional tense isn't translated as "would"

To express speculation about the past: Just as the future tense can be used to express speculation about the present, the conditional can be used to express speculation or probability about the past.

A variety of translations can be used, depending on the context.

  • Después de trabajar, tendrían hambre. After working, they probably were hungry. Another possible translation is "After working, they must have been hungry." (A "would" translation is also possible: "After working, they would have been hungry.")
  • ¿Dónde estuvo Jorge? Estaría en casa. Where was George? He must have been at home. Another possible translation is "Where was George? I wonder if he was at home." (A "would" translation is also possible: "He would have been at home.")

Where the conditional poder is translated as "could": This is a variation on the "would" rule, for poder, which when conjugated can mean "can," can also be translated as "to be able." When "could" means the same as "would be able," the conditional is usually used.

  • Si tuviera dinero, podría ir al cine. If I had money, I could go to the movies. (This is a use of the conditional based on a condition. It also could be translated as "If I had the money, I would be able to go to the movies.)
  • Podrían salir mañana. They could leave tomorrow. (Here the condition is unstated. The sentence also could be translated as "They would be able to leave tomorrow.")
  • ¿Podría tener un lápiz? Could I have a pencil? (Or, "would I be able to have a pencil?")

Examples of when "would" isn't translated as the Spanish conditional

When it refers to a past repeated action: In such cases, the imperfect is usually used.

This use of "would" in English is usually understood as "used to" or as the past tense. What's different in this instance from cases where "would" is in the conditional tense is that the activity isn't hypothetical.

  • Cuando era niño, íbamos al cine. When I was a boy, we would go to the movies. (This is the same as saying "we used to go to the movies" or "we went to the movies." Going to the movies isn't a hypothetical action.)
  • Mi hijo jugaba con cuidado. My son would play carefully. (This is the same as saying, "My son used to play carefully.")