Sunday, February 19, 2012

Word corner - would

A modal verb with both present and past meaning.

Would is a modal (or modal auxiliary) verb, and as such is used with the bare infinitive (infinitive without to), and questions and negatives are made without do. It sometimes acts as the past of will, but is also often used with present meaning.
We can use would in all four standard aspects
Simple would go
Continuous would be going
Perfect would have gone
Perfect continuous would have been going
Practise using would in these exercises

Click and Drop - Where you see this sign, mouse over for instructions

Different uses of would

Exercise 1 - Match the example sentences on the left with their use of would on the right.

1. I wish he would do what I asked.aIndirect question
2. Would you follow me, please?.bFuture in the past
3. He said he would do it tomorrow.cPolite offer
4. I'd rather you didn't do that.dExpressing a preference about an action
5. And every day he would go to work by bicycle.eSoftening an opinion you are not sure about
6. Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?fCommenting on somebody's typical behaviour
7. She had no idea of how much it would cost.gPolite request
8. Would you like to go to the cinema?hPast habit
9. I'd imagine we'll arrive at about six .iRegret about somebody's behaviour
10. He wouldn't do what I asked.jThird conditional
11. One day he would return to this university as a professor.kReported speech
12. If he had known this he would never have asked her.lRefusal in the past
As you can see, would has many uses, but they can perhaps be divided into four main areas.

1. Real Past - as the past of will

  • Reported speech
    He told us that we would all be given a special reward.
    She decided that the blue blouse would go better with her skirt.
  • Indirect questions
    He wondered if he would ever see her again.
    Did he know how much it would cost?
  • Future in the past
    This was the campus where she would spend the next three years.
    Later he would come to regret this decision.
  • Past willingness and refusal
    He would happily do most of the housework, but he wouldn't do the ironing.
    The car wouldn't start this morning.
  • Past habits and repeated actions
    When he lived in Durham, he would cycle to work every day.
    And every day it would rain.

Note 1 - past willingness and refusal.

  • Compare with use in the present
    - John won't do it but I'm sure Susie will.
  • We can only use would for general willingness in the past. For willingness on a specific occasion we need the past simple of a verb like agree.
    - He agreed to do it. NOT (He would do it)
  • We can use wouldn't for past refusal in general and on a specific occasion.
    - He wouldn't eat his breakfast this morning.

Note 2 - past habits and repeated actions.

  • We use would here as an alternative to used to.
  • Remember that we can only use would in this way for actions, not states or longer events, where we use used to or Past Simple.
    - He used to live in Doncaster. NOT (He would live ...)

Exercise 2 - Underline the correct option. If both are correct, underline both. Click on an option to underline it. Click again to undo.

1. She wouldn't / refused to do her homework last night.
2. They would be / used to be friends, but then they fell out.
3. Sarah would always / always used to welcome us with a big smile.
4. Mary would have / had much longer hair then.
5. He always agreed to / would always do what you asked him.
6. When I asked him yesterday he would help / helped me carry the shopping.
7. He used to / would live in Peterborough.
8. I always used to / would always get someone to do my homework for me.
9. He would look / used to look just like his dad.
10. She would never agree / never agreed to help me with anything.

2. Conditionals and Unreal Past

  • Conditionals and hypotheticals
    • 2nd, 3rd and Mixed conditionals
      • She would get into trouble if she was late.
      • If he hadn't missed the bus, he would never have seen her.
      • She'd be there now if she hadn't missed her bus.
    • See below for links to my lessons on Conditionals
  • Imagining a hypothetical situation or result in the present / future and in the past.
    • A bit like conditionals without if
    • present / future
    • It would be a pity not to see her while she's here. (if we didn't see her)
    • Wouldn't it be great?
    • past
    • She would have beeen silly to refuse. (if she had refused)
    • He'd have done better to speak to the boss. (if he had spoken ...)
  • Imagining a hypothetical reason
    • Why would she want to do that?
  • I wish / If only
    • When you want somebody, or the weather, or a machine to do (or not do) something
    • I wish / If only he'd talk about his problems, instead of bottling them up.
    • I wish / If only it would stop raining.
    • I wish / If only the photocopier wouldn't keep breaking down.
    • See below for a link to my lesson on I wish / If only
  • Would prefer, would rather / sooner, and would just as soon
    • Expressing a preference about an action
    • I'd prefer it if you didn't do that.
    • I'd rather you didn't tell Peter what I've just told you.
    • I'd sooner you hadn't said that.
    • I'd just as soon she didn't come to my party.
    • See below for a link to my lesson on Unreal Past
  • You would think (One would think - formal)
    • We use this idiom when something is different from what we'd normally expect. Note the different forms
    • You'd think she would be here by now.
    • You'd think he would he would have told us.
    • You'd think she was the Queen herself, the way she behaves.
    • You'd think by the way he's acting he'd won the competition when in fact he came last.

Exercise 3 - Enter one word into each gap. Contractions count as one word.

1. If you living here, where would you like to be?
2. I'd prefer if we went to the mountains this year.
3. You'd she would have called by now, wouldn't you?
4. I can't think she would treat him so badly.
5. would certainly be nice to see them again.
6. She would be earning far more if she dropped out of university.
7. Who would have thought he do so well in his exam?
8. I think he'd just soon I didn't tell you.
9. Come on! It would be a shame to the beginning of the film.
10. Why do you think he would and say such a thing?

3. To talk about behaviour thought to be typical

We use would, usually disapprovingly, to talk about something we think is typical of somebody's behaviour, just what we might expect of somebody. We sometimes also use it to talk about a typical reaction to a given situaton - you would, wouldn't you?

Exercise 4 - Complete the sentences with verbs from the box.

go   · stand   · spoil   · open   · stir   · stuff   · come   · put  
1. He would go and the evening with his bad behaviour, wouldn't he?
2. You would have to go and your foot in it, wouldn't you?
3. She would have to him up on their first date, wouldn't she?
4. He would go and his big mouth, wouldn't he? That's typical of him.
5. They would have to just as we're getting ready to go, as usual!
6. Typical! I would and forget her birthday, wouldn't I?
7. You would have to go and things up between them, wouldn't you?
8. I told him to his stupid job. - Well you would, wouldn't you?


  • In this use we usually stress the word would - She would say that!
  • We often use the expression would go and (do something)
  • We also often use the expression would have to (do something)
  • Sometimes we use both together - would have to go and (do something)
  • We often use question tags with this kind of statement.

4. As a softener / downtoner

  • In statements where the speaker is not very sure
    • Do you think it'll rain this afternoon? - I'd say so, yes.
    • I would imagine that Wendy will be at the party.
    • I'd have thought that she would have been happy to see you.
  • With appear and seem to make them even more tentative
    • It would appear that nobody's remembered my birthday!
    • It would seem that the meeting has been cancelled.
  • Giving advice with if I were you
    • I wouldn't sit there, if I were you. That's the boss's chair.
    • If I were you, I wouldn't bother about it too much.
  • Speculating
    • There's somebody at the door. - Oh, that would be David.
  • I'd like etc
    • I think Mary would like to see you now.
    • Would like some more wine? - I think I'd prefer a coffee, thanks.
    • Can't you stay a bit longer? - I'd love to, but I can't.
  • In offers, etc
    • Would you like to have lunch with us?
    • Would you be interested in coming with us to the cinema?
  • In polite requests
    • Would you help me move this table, please?
    • Would you just take a seat, and I'll tell him you're here?
  • In requests with mind
    • Would you mind just waiting for a minute or two?
    • Would you mind if I smoked? - No, not all. Go ahead.

Exercise 5 - Enter one word into each gap. Contractions count as one word.

1. Do you think he'd be in coming to the opera with us?
2. I'd love to stay a little longer, but unfortunately I .
3. I was wondering if you'd to go to a movie or something.
4. If I were in shoes, I'd take the job.
5. Would you mind that window. It's very hot in here.
6. Somebody just rang. - Oh, that would be Mark.
7. Thirty-five? I'd have said she was younger than .
8. Would you tea or coffee?. I don't mind, whichever you're having.
9. Would you mind very much I left a bit early this afternoon?
10. The boss would like a with you. Now!
11. It would appear that they're married in the spring.
12. Do you think Mandy will be late? - With this traffic, I'd imagine , yes.

Idiomatic use - expressions and idioms with would

Exercise 6 - Complete the sentences with words from the box.

do   · anything   · have   · carry   · dream   · thing   · believe
could   · arm   · tea   · like   · done  
1. I wouldn't of interrupting your little tête-à-tête.
2. I'd do for a cup of coffee right now.
3. Would that I see his face when he gets my letter of resignation.
4. Would you it? I've left my mobile at home again!
5. As luck would it, I've got a few days off.
6. A day off! Chance would be a fine !
7. As they say - do as you would be by.
8. Don't do that! How would you it if I did that to you?
9. I wouldn't go there for all the in China.
10. He ran off as fast as his legs would him.
11. I'd give my right to be at the Cup Final.
12. You would better talking directly to the boss.
To see the meanings of these expressions, see the link to Cambridge Dictionaries below.

Four songs (extracts)

I'd do anything - Oliver

I think they are mainly talking about willingness here. Maybe there's also an implied condition here - if you asked me perhaps?

DODGER: I'd do anything
For you dear anything
For you mean everything to me.
I know that
I'd go anywhere
For your smile, anywhere
For your smile, ev'rywhere
I'd see.

NANCY: Would you climb a hill?
DODGER: Anything!
NANCY: Wear a daffodil?
DODGER: Anything!
NANCY: Leave me all your will? DODGER: Anything!
NANCY: Even fight my Bill?
DODGER: What? Fisticuffs?

Wouldn't It Be Loverly? - My Fair Lady

This is about imagining a hypothetical situation in the future. The singer is a Cockney, someone from a particular part of London. In the traditional Cockney accent, aitches (h's) were often dropped, so she sings 'ead (head) and 'e (he)

All I want is a room somewhere,
Far away from the cold night air,
With one enormous chair.
Oh, wouldn't it be loverly?

Oh, so loverly sittin' absobloominlutely still.
I would never budge 'till spring
Crept over the windowsill.

Someone's 'ead restin' on my knee,
Warm an' tender as 'e can be,
Who takes good care of me.
Oh, wouldn't it be loverly?
Loverly, loverly, loverly, loverly.

Dusty Springfield - Son of a Preacher Man

Talking about people's habitual actions

Billy-Ray was a preacher's son
And when his daddy would visit he'd come along
When they gathered round and started talkin'
That's when Billy would take me walkin'
A-through the backyard we'd go walkin'
Then he'd look into my eyes
Lord knows to my surprise

Johnny Cash - A girl named Sue

Talking about what often happened, what typically happened.

Well, he must've thought that it's quite a joke
And it got a lot of laughs from a' lots of folks,
It seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal'd giggle and I'd get red
And some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head,
I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named 'Sue.'

Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean,
My fist got hard and my wits got keen,
I'd roam from town to town to hide my shame.
But I made me a vow to the moon and stars
That I'd search the honky-tonks and bars
And kill that man who gave me that awful name.

Bill Bryson - The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Bill Bryson (born December 8, 1951) is a best-selling American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and on science. (Wikipedia)
Because Bryson writes so well, and is often very funny, extracts from his books are often used in TEFL materials.
In this autobiographical book about growing up in Iowa, Bryson often uses would in its normal way to talk about things that happened habitually:
They would have immensely long conversations that seemed always to be dancing about on the edge of a curious happy derangement.
But at one point in the book, Bryson uses would to talk about a specific occasion, something that happened one particular day.
Bryson's parents are talking about the French expression for a type of reclining chair, Chaise longue, which in Iowa they pronounced Shays lounge, and would typically have on their porch.
I remember one day my father came in, quite excitedly, with a word written down on a piece of paper. ... The word was "chaise longue." ...
"It’s French," my father explained.
"Yes, I expect it is," said my mother. "I wonder what it means.
"No idea. Oh, look, there’s Bob coming home from work," my fa­ther said, looking out the window. "I’m going to try it out on him." So he’d collar Bob in his driveway and they’d have an amazed ten-minute conversation. For the next hour, you would see my father striding up and down the alley, and sometimes into neighboring streets, with his piece of paper, showing it to neighbors, and they would all have an amazed conversation. Later, Bob would come and ask if he could borrow the piece of paper to show his wife.
I think he is suggesting that this particular event was in some way typical of what used to happen during his childhood, and perhaps typical of his father's behaviour.

Will and would, future and conditional - connecting with closely related languages

Romance languages have a 'conditional mood', with present and past forms, which are closely connected in their construction to the future (simple). Germanic languages, including English, use modals instead of inflexion (different verb endings) but there is a similar relationship between future and conditional forms.
In English, we can see this in the close relationship of will and would.
EnglishI will goI would goI would have gone
Future SimpleConditional PresentConditional Past
FrenchJ'iraiJ'iraisJe serais allé
SpanishIréIríaHabría ido
ItalianAndròAndreiSarei andato
GermanIch werde gehenIch würde gehenIch würde gegangen sein
DutchIk zal gaanIk zou gaanIk zou zijn gegaan
DanishJeg vil gåJeg ville gåJeg ville være gået
I hope I've got them all right. It is interesting that in all these languages, the past form uses a Perfect construction, exactly like in English. And you can see the similarity of the conditional forms to the future forms in both Romance and Germanic languages.


Related posts

Songs etc on YouTube

Dictionaries etc



Baiba said...

A few days ago I had a talk with my students about the word would and they said they did not feel it as the past of will, they felt it "normal" only in conditional sentences. That's how popular one meaning can be and how strange another may sound to non-native speakers.
Btw, Google dictionary correctly translates would to Latvian but can't cope with Latvian > English.
What a peculiar word :)

Thanks for this lesson!

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