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Would

Would is an auxiliary verb, a modal auxiliary verb. We use would mainly to:

  • talk about the past
  • talk about the future in the past
  • express the conditional mood

We also use would for other functions, such as:

  • expressing desire, polite requests and questions, opinion or hope, wish and regret...

Structure of Would

subject + would + main verb

The main verb is always the bare infinitive (infinitive without "to").

  subject auxiliary verb main verb  
+ She would like tea.
'd
- She would not like whisky.
wouldn't
? Would she like coffee?

Notice that:

  • Would is never conjugated. It is always would or 'd (short form).
  • The main verb is always the bare infinitive.
The main verb is always the bare infinitive. We cannot say:
I would to like coffee.
Be careful! Would and had have the same short form 'd:
He'd finished. (He had finished.)
He'd like coffee. (He would like coffee.)

Use of Would

would: Talking about the past

We often use would as a kind of past tense of will or going to:

  • Even as a boy, he knew that he would succeed in life.
  • I thought it would rain so I brought my umbrella.

Using would as as a kind of past tense of will or going to is common in reported speech:

  • She said that she would buy some eggs. ("I will buy some eggs.")
  • The candidate said that he wouldn't increase taxes. ("I won't increase taxes.")
  • Why didn't you bring your umbrella? I told you it would rain! ("It's going to rain.")

We often use would not to talk about past refusals:

  • He wanted a divorce but his wife would not agree.
  • Yesterday morning, the car wouldn't start.

We sometimes use would (rather like used to) when talking about habitual past behaviour:

  • Every weekday my father would come home from work at 6pm and watch TV.
  • Every summer we'd go to the seaside.
  • Sometimes she'd phone me in the middle of the night.
  • We would always argue. We could never agree.

WOULD for Past Habit

would: Future in past

When talking about the past we can use would to express something that has not happened at the time we are talking about:

  • In London she met the man that she would one day marry.
  • He left 5 minutes late, unaware that the delay would save his life.

would: Conditionals

We often use would to express the so-called second and third conditionals:

  • If he lost his job he would have no money.
  • If I had won the lottery I would have bought a car.

Using the same conditional structure, we often use would when giving advice:

  • I wouldn't eat that if I were you.
  • If I were in your place I'd refuse.
  • If you asked me I would say you should go.

Sometimes the condition is "understood" and there does not have to be an "if" clause:

  • Someone who liked John would probably love John's father. (If someone liked John they would probably love John's father.)
  • You'd never know it. (for example: If you met him you would never know that he was rich.)
  • Why don't you invite Mary? I'm sure she'd come.
Although there is always a main verb, sometimes it is understood (not stated) as in:
  • I'd like to stay. | I wish you would. (would stay)
  • Do you think he'd come? | I'm sure he would. (would come)
  • Who would help us? | John would. (would help us)

would: Desire or inclination

  • I'd love to live here.
  • Would you like some coffee?
  • What I'd really like is some tea.

would: Polite requests and questions

  • Would you open the door, please? (more polite than: Open the door, please.)
  • Would you go with me? (more polite than: Will you go with me?)
  • Would you know the answer? (more polite than: Do you know the answer?)
  • What would the capital of Nigeria be? (more polite than: What is the capital of Nigeria?)

would: Opinion or hope

  • I would imagine that they'll buy a new one.
  • I suppose some people would call it torture.
  • I would have to agree.
  • I would expect him to come.
  • Since you ask me I'd say the blue one is best.

would: Wish

  • I wish you would stay. (I really want you to stay. I hope you will stay.)
  • They don't like me. I'm sure they wish I'd resign.

Note that all of these uses of would express some kind of distance or remoteness:

  • remoteness in time (past time)
  • remoteness of possibility or probability
  • remoteness between speakers (formality, politeness)

would: Presumption or expectation

  • That would be Jo calling. I'll answer it.
  • We saw a police helicopter overhead yesterday morning. | Really? They would have been looking for those bank robbers.

would: Uncertainty

  • He would seem to be getting better. (less certain than: He seems to be getting better.)
  • It would appear that I was wrong. (less certain than: It appears that I was wrong.)

would: Derogatory

  • They would say that, wouldn't they?
  • John said he didn't steal the money. | Well, he would, wouldn't he?

would that: Regret (poetic/rare) - with clause

This rare, poetic or literary use of would does not have the normal structure:

  • Would that it were true! (If only it were true! We wish that it were true!)
  • Would that his mother had lived to see him become president.

Would Quiz >

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