Usage and Grammar

Q. I’m editing a book, and many persons mentioned in early chapters appear later. When the author provides biographical information about the person in the early chapters, he often says something like “Mary Smith would become superintendent of schools in 1976.” The “woulds” are becoming annoying. I suppose we could alter them by using “will.” But because the text is overwhelmingly in the past tense (because it’s speaking about the past) I’m wondering if something like the following could work now and then as an alternative to all the “woulds”: “In 1976 Mary Smith became superintendent of schools.” Would putting that in parentheses be enough of an indicator to the reader that we’re slipping something in that they might like to know?

A. I agree that this use of “would” is maddening in any context except pulp magazines (“This shy cherub of a toddler would later become the most ruthless and feared manuscript editor the world had ever known . . .”). It should be edited out in any of the ways you suggest. Use the past tense, however, rather than the similarly annoying “will.”