The future conditional

would

Would is an auxiliary verb - a modal auxiliary verb. We use would mainly to:

  • talk about the past
  • talk about the future in the past
  • express the conditional mood

We also use would for other functions, such as:

  • expressing desire, polite requests and questions, opinion or hope, wish and regret

Structure of would

The basic structure for would is:

subject + auxiliary verb
would
+ main verb

Note that:

  • The auxiliary verb would is invariable. There is only one form: would
  • The main verb is usually in the base form (He would go).

Look at the basic structure again, with positive, negative and question sentences:

  subject auxiliary
would
not main verb
base
 
+ I would   like tea.
- She would not go.  
? Would you   help?  

Note that the main verb is sometimes in the form:

  • have + past participle (He would have gone)
  • be + -ing (He would be going)
The main verb cannot be the to-infinitive. We cannot say: He would to like coffee.
Be careful! Note that would and had have the same short form 'd:
He'd finished = He had finished
He'd like coffee = He would like coffee

Use of would

would for the past

We often use would as a kind of past tense of will or going to:

  • Even as a boy, he knew that he would succeed in life.
  • I thought it would rain so I brought my umbrella.

Using would as as a kind of past tense of will or going to is common in reported speech:

  • She said that she would buy some eggs. ("I will buy some eggs.")
  • The candidate said that he wouldn't increase taxes. ("I won't increase taxes.")
  • Why didn't you bring your umbrella? I told you it would rain! ("It's going to rain.")

We often use would not to talk about past refusals:

  • He wanted a divorce but his wife would not agree.
  • Yesterday morning, the car wouldn't start.

We sometimes use would (rather like used to) when talking about habitual past behaviour:

  • Every weekday my father would come home from work at 6pm and watch TV.
  • Every summer we'd go to the seaside.
  • Sometimes she'd phone me in the middle of the night.
  • We would always argue. We could never agree.

would for the future in past

When talking about the past we can use would to express something that has not happened at the time we are talking about:

  • In London she met the man that she would one day marry.
  • He left 5 minutes late, unaware that the delay would save his life.

would for conditionals

We often use would to express the so-called second and third conditionals:

  • If he lost his job he would have no money.
  • If I had won the lottery I would have bought a car.

Using the same conditional structure, we often use would when giving advice:

  • I wouldn't eat that if I were you.
  • If I were in your place I'd refuse.
  • If you asked me I would say you should go.

Sometimes the condition is "understood" and there does not have to be an "if" clause:

  • Someone who liked John would probably love John's father. (If someone liked John they would probably love John's father.)
  • You'd never know it. (for example: If you met him you would never know that he was rich.)
  • Why don't you invite Mary? I'm sure she'd come.
Although there is always a main verb, sometimes it is understood (not stated) as in:
  • I'd like to stay. | I wish you would. (would stay)
  • Do you think he'd come? | I'm sure he would. (would come)
  • Who would help us? | John would. (would help us)

would for desire or inclination

  • I'd love to live here.
  • Would you like some coffee?
  • What I'd really like is some tea.

would for polite requests and questions

  • Would you open the door, please? (more polite than: Open the door, please.)
  • Would you go with me? (more polite than: Will you go with me?)
  • Would you know the answer? (more polite than: Do you know the answer?)
  • What would the capital of Nigeria be? (more polite than: What is the capital of Nigeria?)

would for opinion or hope

  • I would imagine that they'll buy a new one.
  • I suppose some people would call it torture.
  • I would have to agree.
  • I would expect him to come.
  • Since you ask me I'd say the blue one is best.

would for wish

  • I wish you would stay. (I really want you to stay. I hope you will stay.)
  • They don't like me. I'm sure they wish I'd resign.
Note that all of these uses of would express some kind of distance or remoteness:
  • remoteness in time (past time)
  • remoteness of possibility or probability
  • remoteness between speakers (formality, politeness)

would for presumption or expectation

  • That would be Jo calling. I'll answer it.
  • We saw a police helicopter overhead yesterday morning. | Really? They would have been looking for those bank robbers.

would for uncertainty

  • He would seem to be getting better. (less certain than: He seems to be getting better.)
  • It would appear that I was wrong. (less certain than: It appears that I was wrong.)

would for derogatory comment

  • They would say that, wouldn't they?
  • John said he didn't steal the money. | Well, he would, wouldn't he?

would that for regret (poetic/rare)

This rare, poetic or literary use of would does not have the normal structure:

  • Would that it were true! (If only it were true! We wish that it were true!)
  • Would that his mother had lived to see him become president.