Modal Auxiliary Verbs - Would

Definition

The modal auxiliary verb would has a variety of functions and uses. It is used in place of will for things that happened or began in the past, and, like shall, it is sometimes used in place of will to create more formal or polite sentences. It is also used to express requests and preferences, to describe hypothetical situations, and to politely offer or ask for advice or an opinion.

Creating the future tense in the past

When a sentence expresses a future possibility, expectation, intention, or inevitability that began in the past, we use would instead of will. For example:
  • “I thought he would be here by now.”
  • “She knew they wouldn’t make it to the show in time.”
  • “I thought John would be mowing lawn by this point.”

Past ability and willingness

We also use would for certain expressions of a person or thing’s ability or willingness to do something in the past, though they are usually negative. For example:
  • “This darn washing machine wouldn’t turn on this morning.”
  • “Mary wouldn’t come out of her room all weekend.”

Likelihood and certainty

Like we saw with will, we can also use would to express the likelihood or certainty that something was the case in the immediate past. For instance:
  • Speaker A: “There was a man here just now asking about renting the spare room.”
  • Speaker B: “That would be Kenneth. He just moved here from Iowa.”

Polite requests

We can use would in the same way as will to form requests, except that would adds a level of politeness to the question, as in:
  • Would you please take out the garbage for me?”
  • Would John mind helping me clean out the garage?”

Expressing desires

We use would with the main verb like to express or inquire about a person’s desire to do something. (We can also use the main verb care for more formal or polite sentences.) For example:
  • “I would like to go to the movies later.”
  • “Where would you like to go for your birthday?”
  • “I would not care to live in a hot climate.”
  • Would you care to have dinner with me later?”
We can use this same construction to express or ask about a desire to have something. If we are using like as the main verb, it can simply be followed by a noun or noun phrase; if we are using care, it must be followed by the preposition for, as in:
  • Would you like a cup of tea?”
  • “He would like the steak, and I will have the lobster.”
  • “Ask your friends if they would care for some snacks.”

Would that

Would can also be used to introduce a that clause to indicate some hypothetical or hopeful situation that one wishes were true. For example:
  • Would that we lived near the sea.”
  • Speaker A: “Life would be so much easier if we won the lottery.”
  • Speaker B: “Would that it were so!”
This is an example of the subjunctive mood, which is used to express hypotheticals and desires. While we still use would in the subjunctive mood to express preference or create conditional sentences (like Speaker A’s sentence above), today the would that construction is generally only found in very formal, literary, old-fashioned, or highly stylized speech or writing.

Preference

We use would with the adverbs rather and sooner to express or inquire about a person’s preference for something. For instance:
  • “There are a lot of fancy meals on the menu, but I would rather have a hamburger.”
  • “They would sooner go bankrupt than sell the family home.”
  • Would you rather go biking or go for a hike?”

Conditional sentences

Conditional sentences in the past tense are called second conditionals. Unlike the first conditional, we use the second conditional to talk about things that cannot or are unlikely to happen.
To create the second conditional, we use the past simple tense after the if clause, followed by would + the bare infinitive for the result of the condition. For example:
  • If I went to London, I would visit Trafalgar Square.”
  • “I would buy a yacht if I ever won the lottery.”

Hypothetical situations

We can also use would to discuss hypothetical or possible situations that we can imagine happening, but that aren’t dependent on a conditional if clause.
For example:
  • “They would be an amazing band to see in concert!”
  • “Don’t worry about not getting in—it wouldn’t have been a very interesting class, anyway.”
  • “She would join your study group, but she doesn’t have any free time after school.”
  • “I normally wouldn’t mind, except that today is my birthday!”

Polite opinions

We can use would with opinion verbs (such as think or expect) to dampen the forcefulness of an assertion, making it sound more formal and polite:
  • “I would expect that the board of directors will be pleased with this offer.”
  • “One would have thought that the situation would be improved by now.”
We can also ask for someone else’s opinion with would by pairing it with a question word in an interrogative sentence, as in:
  • “What would you suggest we do instead?”
  • “Where would be a good place to travel this summer?”

Asking the reason why

When we use the question word why, we often follow it with would to ask the reason something happened or is true. For instance:
  • “Why would my brother lie to me?”
  • “Why would they expect you to know that?”
If we use I or we as the subject of the question, it is often used rhetorically to suggest that a question or accusation is groundless or false, as in:
  • “Why would I try to hide anything from you?”
  • “Why would we give up now, when we’ve come so close to succeeding?”

Polite advice

We can use would in the first person to politely offer advice about something. (It is common to add the phrase “if I were you” at the end, thus creating a conditional sentence.) For example:
  • “I would apologize to the boss if I were you.”
  • “I would talk to her tonight; there’s no point in waiting until tomorrow.”
We can also use would in the second and third person to offer advice, usually in the construction “you would be wise/smart to do something,” as in:
  • “I think you would be wise to be more careful with your money.”
  • “Recent graduates would be smart to set up a savings account as early as possible.”

Substituting Modal Verbs

In many cases, modal auxiliary verbs can be replaced with others to create slightly different meanings.
For example, in addition to using would to form the second conditional (which we use to describe something we would definitely do), we can also use could for what we would be able to do, as well as might for what it is possible (but unlikely) we would do.
For example:
  • “If I won the lottery, I could buy a new house.”
  • “If I were older, I might stay up all night long.”
In British English, should is often used in place of would in many constructions to add politeness or formality. For instance:
  • “I should apologize to the boss if I were you.” (polite advice)
  • “I should like a poached egg for breakfast.” (desire)
Explore the section Substituting Modal Verbs to see how and when other modal verbs overlap.
Quiz

1. Which of the following is not a function of would as a modal verb?





2. Which of the following sentences uses would to express preference?





3. What kind of conditional sentence is formed using would?





4. Which of the following sentences uses a very formal, old-fashioned construction with would to express a wish or desire?





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