The simple word would has a lot of jobs in English. It's a modal auxiliary verb*, which basically means it modifies other verbs to create different effects. Would is used to express:
- polite requests;
- invitations or offers;
- reported speech;
- repeated actions in the past;
- willingness in the past;
- hypothetical situations;
- conditional sentences;
- talk about preferences; and, finally,
That's a lot to cover in one blog post! I'll mostly give you examples so you can see how it works.
1. Make polite requests
It's always a good idea to ask for things politely in English. If you say, "Close the window", to someone, you'll sound very demanding. Even if you add, "please", it will still sound like you're ordering them to do something.
A. Close the window, please.
B. You're not the boss of me! Close it yourself!
Instead, we use would to ask politely.
A. Would you close the window, please?
B. Sure, I'd be happy to.
Notice that the structure is would + you + base verb.
2. To make invitations or offers
Let's say you want to invite someone to come to your home for tea. Since you're inviting them, not ordering them to come, you'll want to say it politely. Again, we use would:
A. Would you like to come over for tea tomorrow?
B. Oh, that would be lovely!
Here the structure is would + you + like + to-infinitive verb.
3. In reported speech
The trick to using would in reported speech is simply to substitute it for the verb will in direct speech.
Your friend Maria says to you: Yes, I will come over for tea tomorrow.
You tell someone else: Maria said she would come over for tea tomorrow.
The structure is simply would + verb (previously used with will).
4. To talk about repeated actions in the past
If you want to talk about an action done repeatedly in the past but not anymore, use would.
When I was a child, I would stay on my grandparents' farm every summer.
But this is only for action verbs. For state verbs, use "used to" or the past simple.
used to: I used to feel lonely a lot when I was younger.
simple past: I felt lonely a lot when I was younger.
5. To talk about willingness in the past
If you want to say how willing or happy someone was to do something in the past, you can use would. This is typically a negative statement, however, so in that case, it's wouldn't.
She said she had a plan, but she wouldn't tell me what it was.
Just add not to the structure we've looked at before: would + not + base verb.
6. In hypothetical situations
When you talk about an unreal, or imaginary situation, the structure is would + base form, and you can talk about both actions and states of being.
action: He would give you whatever you needed.
state: He would love to get a job that paid better.
7. In conditional sentences
Both the second and third conditionals use would in their construction. Conditionals have two clauses: an if clause, and a then clause.
Each conditional form is used for a different purpose.
- Second conditional: to express an unlikely or impossible outcome in the present.
- if clause: if + subject + past simple.
- then clause: (then) + subject + would + base form. Often, then is implied without being written.
If I had enough room in my house, (then) I would get a piano.
You can put the if and then clauses in either order in the sentence. When the if clause comes first, you must put a comma after it, before the then clause. When then comes first, you don't need a comma.
I would get a piano if I had enough room in my house.
- Third conditional: to talk about a hypothetical situation in the past. We usually use this in the negative to talk about something that might have had a different outcome. Sometimes the outcome is positive, and sometimes negative.
positive result: If she hadn't gone to the dance, we would never have met!
negative result: They would have found the restaurant if they had followed my directions.
The structures here are a bit more complex:
- if clause: if + subject + past perfect
- then clause: subject + would have + (not/never) + past participle
8. To express wishes
If someone is annoying me, I might say, "I wish they would stop doing that!" We use this structure a lot to talk about a hypothetical situation that we don't expect to come true.
I wish it would stop raining.
Hedda wishes she could have chocolate for breakfast every day.
"Wish" statements are constructed like this: [subject + wish] + [subject + would/could + base form].
9. To talk about preferences
(We're almost there! Only one more after this.)
When there is more than one option available, you express your preference with subject + would rather + base form.
A. We have either salmon or chicken for dinner.
B. I would rather have the salmon.
The options aren't always spelled out, but the preference is still clear.
A. It's cold here!
B. Yeah, I'd rather live in the south.
Another way to say the same thing is would prefer. The only difference in structure is that the verb following "prefer" is a to-infinitive: subject + would prefer + to-infinitive.
"Prefer" is generally more formal than "rather". In a casual conversation, you will most likely hear and use "rather".
You can ask someone's preference using the same phrases, but the structure changes slightly: would + subject + rather/prefer + base form/to-infinitive.
A. Would you prefer salmon or chicken for dinner?
B. Salmon, please.
10. To give opinions
(Finally! The last one!)
Using would when giving your opinion can either be simply polite, or it can express that you aren't sure you're correct.
There are some common phrases used in these situations:
- I would think...
- I would imagine...
- I would guess...
A. Should we go ahead and publish the article?
B. I would think we need to wait and make sure the editor is okay with it. [more polite than "I think we need to..."]
A. She looks really tired.
B. I would imagine it's been exhausting with the new baby at home.
A. What do we do now?
B. I'd guess he'd want us to call his mom for help.
And there you have it—10 ways to use the word would in English. You can review this lesson with a video about "would" on the English with Lucy YouTube channel.
*modal auxiliary verb [part of speech]—modifies another verb to express different aspects of meaning. For more on modals, see our blog post, "Grammar essentials: Introduction to modals".
You're not the boss of me! [idiom]—a response to someone ordering you to do something that you don't want to do; based on the idea that a "boss" gives orders that must be followed.