One point: when we say might, we also mean may. Might and may are used in the same way, so almost everything you hear about might is also true about may.
In the few cases where might and may are used differently, we’ll make it clear.
Let’s start by looking at the difference between will and might.
1. Talking About Real Future Possibilities
Look at a pair of sentences:
- I’ll go to a yoga class tonight.
- I might go to a yoga class tonight.
What’s the difference?
The first sentence, with will, expresses certainty. You’re 100% sure about your plans.
The second sentence, with might, expresses possibility. You’re not 100% sure about your plans. It’s possible that you’ll go to a yoga class, but it’s also possible that you’ll do something else.
That’s the difference between will and might. Both modal verbs are used to talk about the future. Will expresses certainty about the future, while might expresses possibility, which in a way is the opposite of certainty; possibility means that you’re not certain about something.
Think about the negative forms:
- I won’t go to yoga class tonight.
- I might not go to yoga class tonight.
Can you see the difference here?
The answer is the same: using will or won’t shows that you’re 100% sure about what will happen. Using might or might not shows that you aren’t 100% sure about what will happen.
Let’s see some more examples of this:
- It might be hot next week. –> It’s possible that it’ll be hot, but you aren’t sure.
- He won’t come unless you tell him several weeks beforehand. –> You’re sure about this.
- He might not come unless you tell him several weeks beforehand. –> It’s possible that he won’t come in this case, but you aren’t sure.
Next, let’s think about the difference between will and would.
2. Using Would: The Imaginary Future
When you say,
- It will be hot next week.
- It might be hot next week.
…you’re talking about the real future. You think it’s possible that it will be hot next week. Even if you’re not sure, it’s still a real possibility.
What do you mean, ‘real future’? Is there another kind?
Glad you asked! Yes, there is. In English, you can also talk about the imaginary future.
Let’s see how:
- If I could go anywhere, I’d go to Nepal.
- Who would you choose if it was up to you?
- I’d never speak to you again if you told her.
Look at these examples. Do you know what ‘imaginary future’ means?
It means you’re imagining something in the future, but you don’t think it will actually happen in reality.
If I could go anywhere, I’d go to Nepal. I can’t go anywhere, so I won’t go to Nepal. I’m just imagining it.
Who would you choose if it was up to you? It’s not up to you, so you can’t choose. I’m just asking you to imagine that it’s your decision.
I’d never speak to you again if you told her. I don’t think you will tell her, so I don’t think it’s realistic that I’ll never speak to you again. Of course, I could be wrong…
So, when you use will, you’re talking about the real future. You’re certain about something that is a real possibility.
When you use would, you’re also certain, but about the imaginary future. You’re imagining a future, and you’re sure about what would happen in that imaginary future…
…but, you don’t think that imaginary future will ever actually become reality.
Now, we’d like you to think about something. Look at three sentences:
- Even if you ask, I won’t help you.
- Even if you asked, I wouldn’t help you.
- If you asked, I would help you.
A question: which of these sentences means that I will help you in the future?
Think about it.
Actually, that was a trick question. All three sentences mean that I won’t help you in the real future.
Did you get it right? In our experience, many students get this question wrong. Either way, let’s explain the answer.
Even if you ask, I won’t help you. This one is hopefully obvious. If you say, I won’t, you’re talking about the real future. Even if you ask—in reality—I won’t help you—in reality.
Even if you asked, I wouldn’t help you. What’s the difference between this and the first sentence?
The only difference is that I don’t think you’ll ask me to help you. You won’t ask me to help you, so I won’t help you. But, even if you asked, I still wouldn’t help you. Nice of me, right?
If you asked, I would help you. This is the sentence that can cause problems. Can you explain why this means that I won’t help you, in reality, in the future?
This sentence is about the imaginary future. Using would means that you don’t think this situation will happen. If you asked, I would help you, but I don’t think you will ask, so I don’t think I will help you.
Keep practicing with this Oxford Online English lesson on using ‘would’.
This is an important point, and it can cause misunderstandings—we’ve seen it happen many times! Let’s look at this in more detail.
3. Won’t vs Would: Real and Imaginary Future Possibilities
Look at two sentences:
- She won’t agree.
- She would agree.
What’s the difference between them?
Hopefully, now you can answer that question.
The most important point is that in both sentences, you mean that she won’t agree in reality.
In the first sentence, that’s all you’re saying; you’re saying that she won’t agree in the future, and you’re sure about that.
In the second sentence, you’re talking about an imaginary future situation which exists in your head. You’re not talking about what you think will happen in reality, so the basic meaning is similar: she won’t agree in reality.
Urgh—so abstract! Why are we making you think about this?
If you don’t understand this, you can very easily misunderstand quite important points when you’re speaking to someone in English.
For example, imagine you invite someone to your birthday dinner. The other person says:
You think, ‘Great! This person’s coming!’ You walk away and continue making your birthday plans.
Except, as you hopefully understood, they’re not coming. They left part of their sentence unsaid. The full sentence might be something like:
- I would come if I wasn’t so busy.
- I would come if I was free.
- I would come, but I don’t want to spend any money on buying you a present.
You don’t know. The point is: the other person won’t come to your birthday dinner in reality. And, reality is probably more important to you, right?
Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if everybody was direct and said exactly what they meant, but in the real world, people are often indirect, and they don’t say exactly what they mean.
Also, people usually speak with contractions: I’ll, I’d, she’ll, she’d, etc. It can be hard to hear the difference, but the meaning can be totally opposite.
If you’re listening, and you’re not sure if someone said I’ll or I’d, here’s our advice: ask! It’s important, because you could completely misunderstand the situation.
We’ve talked a lot about will and would here, but what about might? Can you use might to talk about the imaginary future?
4. Using Might and Would: Imaginary Future
You can use might to talk about the real future or the imaginary future.
Look at three sentences:
- It might snow next week.
- He might have a different suggestion.
- Taking the bus might not be the best way to get there.
Are these sentences about the real future, or not? Is it possible that it will snow next week, or not?
These sentences are about the real future. They all describe real future possibilities that you aren’t 100% sure about.
In a simple sentence like this, might is always about real future possibilities.
However, you can also use might to talk about the imaginary future, too. Do you know how?
Here are some examples:
- If I had more energy, I might join you.
- He might not pay you back if you lent him the money.
Can you see the difference?
You can use might to talk about the imaginary future only in a sentence with if. You also need to use a past tense verb after if.
Think about something: what do these sentences mean?
The first sentence means that I don’t have more energy, so I won’t join you, but I’m imagining a future in which I have more energy, and even in that imaginary future, I’m not 100% sure I would join you.
Clearly, whatever you’re inviting me to do isn’t very exciting.
- He might not pay you back if you lent him the money.
I don’t think you’ll actually lend him the money in reality, but I’m imagining a future where you do lend him the money, and in that imaginary future, I’m not 100% sure whether he would pay you back or not.
Finally, this is one case where might and may are different. You can’t use may in these sentences to talk about the imaginary future. Only might is possible.
Up to now, you’ve seen how to use will, might and would to talk about the future.
But, what about the past?
5. Talking About The Imaginary Past
First of all, you can’t generally use will to talk about the past. There are one or two cases where you can, but it’s rare. Generally, will is about the future, or sometimes the present.
You can use would or might to talk about imaginary past situations.
What does ‘imaginary past’ mean?
Like the imaginary future, it means you imagine a past which didn’t happen.
For example, let’s say that you studied history at university. You want to imagine a past where you studied medicine instead.
You might say something like:
- If I’d studied medicine, I would have become a doctor.
- I might have been more interested in my studies if I’d studied medicine.
In these cases, you’re imagining a different past. You didn’t study medicine; you studied history. But, what if you had studied medicine? Imagine it; that’s the situation these sentences are describing.
A question: what do you need to add after would or might to make the meaning past?
You need to add have and a past participle verb.
Also, when talking about the imaginary past, you almost always use an if-sentence.
Let’s see some more examples:
- I would have bought you a present if I’d known it was your birthday!
- If I had missed the train, we might never have met!
Next question: can you explain what these sentences mean?
Let’s look together.
The first sentence is imagining a different past. In reality, I didn’t know it was your birthday, and I didn’t buy you a present.
But, I’m imagining a different past, where I knew it was your birthday. In that imaginary past, I’m 100% sure I would have bought you a present.
The second sentence is also imagining a different past. In reality, I didn’t miss the train, so we did meet.
However, in my imaginary past, I missed the train. In this imaginary situation, I’m not 100% sure whether we would have met or not. Maybe we would have met somewhere else, or on another day, but maybe not.
You can see that these sentences contain a lot of information! However, you only really need to think about two (or maybe three) things:
One: are you 100% sure or not 100% sure? If you’re 100% sure, use will or would. If not, use might.
Two: are you talking about real life, or an imaginary situation? If you’re talking about real life, use will or might. If you’re talking about an imaginary situation, use would or might.
The final thing: you need to think about whether you’re talking about the future or the past. However, this doesn’t change which verb you should use; it just changes how you should use them.
Thanks for watching!