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'will' and 'would'

Level: beginner

We use will:

  • to express beliefs about the present or future
  • to talk about what people want to do or are willing to do
  • to make promises, offers and requests.

would is the past tense form of will. Because it is a past tense, it is used:

  • to talk about the past
  • to talk about hypotheses (when we imagine something)
  • for politeness.

Beliefs

We use will to express beliefs about the present or future:

John will be in his office. (present)
We'll be late. (future)
We will have to take the train. (future)

We use would as the past of will, to describe past beliefs about the future:

I thought we would be late, so we would have to take the train.

Willingness

We use will:

  • to talk about what people want to do or are willing to do:

We'll see you tomorrow.
Perhaps Dad will lend me the car.

  • to talk about typical behaviour, things that we often do (because we are willing to do them):

We always spend our holidays at our favourite hotel at the seaside. We'll get up early every morning and have a quick breakfast then we'll go across the road to the beach.

We use would as the past tense of will:

  • to talk about what people wanted to do or were willing to do in the past:

We had a terrible night. The baby wouldn't go to sleep.
Dad wouldn't lend me the car, so we had to take the train.

  • to talk about typical behaviour, things that we often did (because we were willing to do them) in the past:

When they were children they used to spend their holidays at their grandmother's at the seaside. They'd get up early every morning and have a quick breakfast. Then they'd run across the road to the beach.

Promises, offers and requests

We use I will or We will to make promises and offers:

I'll give you a lift home after the party.
We'll come and see you next week.

We use Will you … ? or Would you … ? to make requests:

Will you carry this for me, please?
Would you please be quiet?

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Level: intermediate

Hypotheses and conditionals

We use will in conditionals to say what we think will happen in the present or future:

I'll give her a call if I can find her number.
You won't get in unless you have a ticket.

We use would to make hypotheses:

  • when we imagine a situation:

It would be very expensive to stay in a hotel.
I would give you a lift, but my wife has the car today.

  • in conditionals:

I would give her a call if I could find her number.
If I had the money, I'd buy a new car.
You would lose weight if you took more exercise.
If he got a new job, he would probably make more money.
What if he lost his job? What would happen then?

We also use conditionals to give advice :

Dan will help you if you ask him.

Past tenses are more polite:

Dan would help you if you asked him.

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See also: Verbs in time clauses and conditionals

Level: beginner

Expressions with would

We use:

  • would you…, would you mind (not) -ing for requests:

Would you carry this for me, please?
Would you mind carrying this?
Would you mind not telling him until tomorrow?

  • would you like ..., would you like to ...  for offers and invitations:

Would you like another drink?
Would you like to come round tomorrow?

  • I would like …, I'd like … (you)(to) ... to say what we want or what we want to do:

I'd like that one, please.
I'd like to go home now.

  • I'd rather… (= I would rather) to say what we prefer:

I'd rather have the new one, not the old one.
I don't want another drink. I'd rather go home.

  • I would thinkI would imagine, I'd guess to give an opinion when we are not sure or when we want to be polite:

It's very difficult, I would imagine.
I would think that's the right answer.

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Comments

Hi Crokong,

Let's take a look at some examples.

  1. We absolutely should go to the beach today!
  2. Let's go to the beach today!
  3. Shall we go to the beach today?
  4. It would be nice to go to the beach today.
  5. It would be nice if we could perhaps go to the beach today.

All these sentences suggest the same thing (going to the beach). But can you feel some differences in style between them, and that some of them put more pressure on the reader/listener to agree or respond?

 

I've listed the sentences in order of directness (1 = most direct; 5 = least direct). In sentences 1 and 2, the suggestions are given quite flatly and simply. The reader/listener will feel some pressure to agree or respond. That's what's meant by 'direct'.

Sentences 4 and 5 are the opposite - they put relatively low pressure on the reader/listener to agree or respond. We might avoid putting pressure on, for example, if we want to show that we respect the reader/listener's authority (as with a manager at work, for example), or if we want to avoid seeming too demanding or pushy. The indirectness comes from the use of would, to present 'going to the beach' as a hypothetical action (i.e., not yet definitely possible or real; dependent on the reader/listener's agreement). Sentence 5 is even more indirect, using could and perhaps.

Sentence 3 is somewhere in the middle.

Does that help?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks, Jonathan. Your explanation is very clear. I have example sentences that makes me a bit confused.

If you moved your chair a bit, we could all sit down.
It would be nice if you helped me with the homework.

Are the sentences above also a less direct way?

Hi Crokong,

Yes, that's right! Some examples of more direct ways to say these things are Move your chair so we can all sit down and Help me with the homework.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

It will be a cat or it would be a cat? Which choice is right?

Hello Gendeng,

Both sentences are grammatically possible. Without a context there's no way to say which would be the better choice.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Which one should I use "will" or "would" in the following sentence?

A: Let me help you with your homework.
B: That would/will be great.

Hello whitekrystal,

Here we typically say 'would'. There is nothing really grammatically wrong with 'will' here, and we use 'That will be great' in situations when we're talking about something more in the future. But here, where the help seems to be immediate, we say 'would'. I'm afraid I don't have a good explanation in terms of grammar; it's almost as if it's a fixed phrase we use to respond to offers in the moment.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

My grammar books says the modal verbs "would" and "could" also makes suggestions less direct.

I thought it would be nice to have a picnic.
We could ask Peter to help us.

My question is what is "less direct"?

Hello Crokong,

It sounds to me as if your grammar book is describing how these forms can be used to speak more politely. One of the ideas behind politeness in English is that it is impolite to demand people to do things. But of course we need to ask people to do things for us very frequently, and so one important way of being polite is to make our requests less direct. One way to do this is to put your request in the form of a question -- instead of saying 'I want a cup of tea', I can say 'Can I have a cup of tea?' It's as if the other person could say no to our request, and in the logic of English, this is considerably more polite.

Another way of making a request or suggestion less direct is to use a verb form that emphasises possibility. Following the previous example, I could use 'could' instead of 'can' in my question: 'Could I have a cup of tea?' Using 'could' makes it sound as if my request is less urgent, and therefore imposes less on the person I'm asking. Often we call this 'being less direct' -- the fact that we make the request in a way that allows the other person to refuse (even if actually they cannot refuse) is considered more polite.

In the second example you ask about it, the same idea is at work. By saying 'could', we make this idea a suggestion rather than a command, which makes it less direct and therefore more polite. In the first example, using a past tense form also makes the request less immediate and so it's more polite than saying 'I think'.

Does that make sense?

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk. Thanks for the explanation. By the way, what is the difference between the following?

I think it would be nice to have a picnic.
I would think it's nice to have a picnic.

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