Free English Lessons

Modal Verbs – Would – Video

by Oli Redman on 29 May, 2017 , No comments

Learn about the modal verb would, the different meanings of would, and how to use would in English in this free English lesson. For a quick review, be sure to watch our other lesson about modal verbs.

Would you like to learn more about would and what it means? If I asked you to tell me all the meanings and uses of would right now, would you be able to? Like all modal verbs, would can have many different meanings.

1. How to Use Would to Talk About an Imaginary or Unreal Situation

Modal verbs would lesson: How to use would to talk about imaginary situations image

Imagine your friend asks you:

  • What would you do if you were attacked by a shark?

Why does your friend use would in this question? And how should you answer?

Probably, your answer would also include would. Maybe something like:

  • I’d probably try to hit it on the nose, or poke it in the eye, or something like that. Maybe I’d just try to swim away.

So, any ideas? Why do we use would here?

It’s because getting attacked by a shark is very unlikely. We use would when we talk about things which are either very unlikely, or totally impossible.

For example:

  • What would you do if you could read people’s thoughts?

→ Reading people’s thoughts is impossible, so we use would. It’s a question about an imaginary situation.

  • I would help you if I could.

→ I can’t help you, so I use would to show that it’s impossible. This is like saying, “I can’t help you.”

  • She would be here, but he has too much work at the moment.

→ She’s not here, although she would be if she didn’t have so much work.

In all of these cases, when you use would, you’re talking about a situation which isn’t true, and which you think will never happen.

That’s what it means when you use would like this. You’re saying, “I think this thing will never happen.”

  • If I won the lottery, I would…

You say would because you don’t think you’ll ever win the lottery.

You can use would have plus a past participle to talk about the past in the same way. For example:

  • What would you have said if she’d seen you?

→ She didn’t see you, so you didn’t say anything to her. I’m asking you a question about an imaginary situation. I’m saying, “Imagine a different version of the past, where she did see you…”

  • I wouldn’t have come if I’d known it was going to go on so late.

→ I didn’t know it was going to go on so late, so I did come, but now I regret it! Imagine you’re at an event and you have to get up early tomorrow. The event goes on much later than you expected, so you say this.

  • He wouldn’t have been much help, anyway.

→ He wasn’t there, so he couldn’t help, but even if he had been there, he wouldn’t have been able to help us.

This is the most common way to use the modal verb would, and probably the most complicated. However, would has many other uses.

Let’s look!

2. How to Use Would in Polite Requests

Modal verbs would lesson: How to use would in polite requests illustration

If you want to ask someone to do something for you, using would in your request can make it sound more polite.

For example:

  • Can you tell me the time?
  • Will you get me a sandwich?
  • I want something to eat.

All of these requests are quite informal. That can be fine, depending on the situation, but sometimes you want to be a bit more formal, so that you sound polite.

Would can be useful here. Look at the sentences. Can you see how to use would?

Okay, let’s check your ideas:

  • Would you mind telling me the time?
  • Would you get me a sandwich?
  • I’d like something to eat.

Using would you mind + -ing is a very polite way to make a request.

You can also use would in place of will in a request. This makes it a little more formal and polite.

Finally, using would like instead of want is better, unless you’re in a very informal situation.

To be clear, these aren’t the only ways to use would. There are other possible answers.

For example, you could say:

  • Tell me the time, would you?
  • Would you mind getting me a sandwich?

These are possible, but the first answers I gave you are the most obvious.

Also, let’s get something clear: there’s no connection between these different uses of would.

If you use would to make a polite request, like you’re doing here, there’s no connection with the idea of imaginary or unreal situations that you saw in part one.

Okay, let’s move on and look at another way to use would.

3. How to Use Would in Reported Speech

Modal verbs would lesson: How to use 'would' in reported speech image

Imagine you have a friend who’s always late for everything. You’re meeting your friend tomorrow, and you’re really annoyed that you always have to wait. You tell your friend to be on time, and she replies:

  • I’ll be on time, I promise! I’ll get an earlier bus, which will get to the centre by 3.00.

Now, imagine that it’s a few days later, and you want to tell me what your friend said to you. How would you do it?

You would say something like:

  • My friend promised she’d be on time. She said she’d get an earlier bus, which she said would arrive by 3.00. Of course, when she turned up it was nearly 4.00!

Do you see what’s happening here?

Every time your friend says will, you say would when you’re talking about what your friend said.

English learners often say something like, “Would is the past tense of will.” That’s true sometimes, but not generally.

For example, for the uses of would you saw in parts one and two, it’s not helpful or accurate to say that would is the past tense of will.

However, in reported speech, it’s a good way to think about it.

There’s one more case where the modal verb would has a past meaning connected to will.

Do you know what I’m talking about?

4. How to Use Would to Mean ‘Refused to Do Something’

Modal verbs would lesson: How to use 'would' to mean 'refused to do something' illustration

Both will and would can have the meaning of refusing to do something. For example:

  • I’ll ask him, but he won’t help me. → He’ll refuse to help me (in the future).
  • I asked him, but he wouldn’t help me. → He refused to help me (in the past).

In this case, you can use would as the past version of will.

You can use this to talk about people:

  • They wouldn’t give me my money back, even though I had the receipt.

→ They refused to give me my money back.

You can also use it to talk about things:

  • My car wouldn’t start this morning.

→ My car ‘refused’ to start. Okay, cars can’t literally refuse to start, but we often talk about machines, computers and things like that in this way.

Here’s a similar example:

  • When he tried to show me, the file wouldn’t open.

So here and in part three—reported speech—the meanings of will and would are connected.

When you’re thinking about how to use will and would, it’s important to remember that sometimes the meanings are connected, and sometimes they’re completely different. We’ll come back to this point at the end of the lesson.

There’s one more way to use would that we need to look at:

5. How to Use Would to Talk About Habits in the Past

Modal verbs would lesson: How to use 'would' to talk about habits in the past illustration

You can use the modal verb would to talk about things you did in the past, but don’t do now.

For example:

  • My mum would walk us to school when we were little.
  • When I was training for the marathon, I would go running for two hours every day after work. It was exhausting!

Would is similar to used to here, but it’s not exactly the same.

When you use would like this, you can only talk about repeated actions in the past. You can’t talk about states and situations, like you can with used to.

So, you can’t say:

  • I would live in a small flat with my friends when I was a student.

That’s not correct, because live is a state, not an action.

However, this sentence is okay:

  • I would go out with my friends most evenings when I was a student.

This is fine, because go out is an action.

So, now you’ve seen all the different ways you can use would in English.

Let’s review what you’ve learned today.

6. Review: How to Use Would

Would has five common uses in English. It can be used:

  1. To talk about imaginary or unreal situations.
  2. To make polite requests.
  3. In reported speech, as the past version of will.
  4. To mean ‘refused to’.
  5. To talk about repeated actions in the past.

When you’re learning about how to use would, one of the most important things to get clear in your head is the relationship between will and would.

Sometimes will and would are connected: if you’re using reported speech, or using would to mean ‘refused to’, then would behaves like a past version of will.

However, in the other uses of would, there is no connection between will and would. In fact, in the most common use of would—talking about imaginary or unreal situations—will and would have almost opposite meanings.

For example, if someone says, “I’ll help you,” with will, you can expect them to help you, in reality.

If someone says, “I would help you,” with would, then you shouldn’t expect them to help you. Will and would have completely different meanings here.

It’s also good to remember that the different uses of would aren’t connected to each other at all. The meaning of would depends completely on the sentence and the situation.

Finally, would can refer to different times depending on how you’re using would. For example:

  • I would come tomorrow, but I’ve already made other plans.
  • Would you pass me that blue bag?
  • I asked them to change my ticket, but they wouldn’t do anything.

These three sentences are about the future, the present and the past, respectively.

So you can’t say what time would refers to by itself. It can refer to any time depending on the meaning and the context.

Most importantly, would doesn’t necessarily have a past meaning. Sometimes it does, but it can also refer to the present or the future.

Thanks a lot for watching!

How to Use 'Would' Quiz

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Oli RedmanModal Verbs – Would – Video