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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.

will and would: hypotheses and conditionals

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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.

Expressions with would 1

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Expressions with would 2

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Comments

Hello, could you explain why "would" means something like "probably"?

Six o'clock would be a good time to meet.
It would be better to paint the wall green.

Hello Crokong,

It's not really about probability. Would is used for uncertain or tentative propositions and because of this it sounds more polite in requests and proposals than will.

For example:

1. It will be better to paint the wall green.

2. It would be better to paint the wall green

The first sentence is very direct and sounds more like an instruction than a suggestion. The second sentence is more tentative and hence sounds much more like a polite recommendation or suggestion.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Dear Kirk and Peter,

What's the difference of meaning between using "will" and "would" in these two sentences ?

1) If he helps me, I will return the favour.
2) If he helps me, I would return the favour.

Thanks

Hi melvinthio,

Sentence 1 sounds like it is describing a promise or a commitment that you have already made. Sentence 2 seems more like a hypothetical situation, i.e., you have not actually promised or committed to help him, but you would do that if he helps you. Sentence 2 conveys more uncertainty than sentence 1 about whether this whole situation will actually happen or not, because it uses would.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks Jonathan for your explanation. So, for sentence 2 : "If he helps me, I would return the favour", can I understand it this way?

[1] Using "would" means that in my present imagination, "returning his favour" is something that's existing in my mind right now, but I'm not sure yet what I will actually do later if he helps me, I might do a different thing later, I don't know. This sense is in contrast with the sentence 1 using "will" which gives the implication that I have made the promise or commitment to return the favour if he helps me.

[2] You explained that sentence 2 is more uncertain than sentence 1 about whether the whole situation will actually happen or not.
I assume what you mean by "the whole situation will actually happen or not" refers to the main clause using "would", and not to the if clause because the two if clauses have the same tense, i.e. present tense. Is my assumption right?

I would appreciate your clear explanation and if possible, please provide me with an example to make it clearer. Thanks.

To make it simple for me to understand the combined usage of present tense in if-clause + "would" in tye main clause (if he helps me, I would return the favour), please help me explain whether there is a difference between :
(1) if he helps me, I would return the favour (present tense + would)
(2) if he helped me, I would return the favour (second conditiinal).
Thanks

Hi melvinthio,

I’ll list the three sentences here again:

  1. If he helps me, I will return the favour.
  2. If he helps me, I would return the favour.
  3. If he helped me, I would return the favour.

About your question [1], sentence 2 doesn’t mean that the speaker is unsure what he/she will do later. (That is the meaning of might, e.g. If he helps me, I might return the favour). If the speaker says I would return the favour, he/she is definitely willing to do that, given that the condition (if he helps me) is fulfilled.

 

About question [2], it is unclear whether sentence 2 is describing:

  • a real or possible future situation (as in sentence 1, a first conditional), or
  • an unreal/hypothetical one (as in sentence 3, a second conditional).

It's unclear because sentence 2 has the if-clause of a first conditional, and the main clause of a second conditional. You are right to note that the if-clauses are the same in sentences 1 and 2. However, it is important to note that to understand each sentence, we need to interpret what the two clauses mean in relation to each other, not separately. That’s because the actions in the two clauses are logically connected (a condition and a result). This is why I wrote that sentence 2 is more uncertain than sentence 1. It’s not only about the would clause, because the would clause depends on the if-clause. If the if-clause describes a real future but the main clause describes an unreal future, the sentence overall is ambiguous about whether the condition-result belong to a real or unreal future, and the listener will have to use other information (e.g. the context in which it is said) to interpret whether this is a real or unreal offer to return the favour.

 

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Jonathan,
Once again thanks so much for your clear explanation. Yes, it makes sense that If the if-clause describes a real future but the main clause describes an unreal future (e.g. if he helps, I would return his favour), the sentence overall is ambiguous about whether the condition-result belongs to a real or unreal future. However, this kind of combined structure is often used by English native speakers in spoken English. I have never seen an explanation for this combination in grammar books, so I need your help.

If, from the context in which it is said, it is already clear that this combined structure refers to the first or second conditional, it means that the semantic problem of this structure is solved. But is it grammatically right to use it to replace the first or second conditional sentence?

I was hoping you would help me with a clear explanation to this grammatical issue.

Best regards,

Hi melvinthio,

Is it grammatically right? This is a simple question with a complicated answer :)

The answer depends on your view about what grammar is, and what it is for. Some people think of grammar as a set of rules which people must follow. In this point of view, the sentence is incorrect, since:

  • it doesn’t conform to the first or second conditional structure.
  • course books rarely or never teach this structure (as you pointed out).

On the other hand, some people see grammar as a way to describe (not prescribe) how people actually use language in real life, including new and creative ways that may not be traditionally regarded as correct. In this point of view, it can be considered correct, because:

  • the sentence does mean something (despite the ambiguity of the realness-unrealness), and listeners can make sense of it by using contextual information.
  • in real life, people do sometimes make constructions like this (as you pointed out).

Another thing to consider is the situation. One way to judge correctness is the appropriateness in the situation. In a discussion about a legal contract or in a language exam, for instance, when there is an expectation that a person should speak very clearly and precisely, I wouldn’t recommend saying that sentence, since the meaning is ambiguous. But in ordinary conversation, I think it would be fine.

What do you think?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, Jonathan, thanks so much for your clear explanation.
Now, I have another query about the usage of the word "ever" specifically in affirmative sentences. Can we use it in relative clauses [examples 1&2] and that clauses [examples 3&4] ?

E.g. :

[1] Any of the books he has ever written is great.
[2] This is the topic we have ever discussed.
[3] I'm sure he has ever phoned her.
[4] I think we have ever met before.

I would highly appreciate your help.
Best regards,

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