Using the Modal Verb “Would” with Conditionals
The modal verb, “would,” can be used in number of different ways. You might want to think of it as a past tense of “will,” although “would” has other uses as well.
Basic sentence construction with “would” involves either:
subject + would + infinitive
- He would like that.
subject + would + have + past participle
- He would have liked that.
Much like “had,” “would” can be used as part of a contraction (a shortened version of would, as ‘d.
Example: He‘d have to work hard to learn a new language.
Here, “He’d” is the short version of “He would.”
The difference is that “would” must be followed by an infinitive without “to,” and “had” by a past participle or “to + infinitive” (“I’d have done that for you,” vs. “He’d gone to the store”).
8 Common examples of the modal verb “Would”
Here are examples of the various uses of the word “would.”
Using would as the past of “will” in reported speech
While we typically use “will” in direct speech (i.e., something said directly by the speaker), we might instead use “would” in reported speech (i.e., referring to something someone else said, usually in the past). For example:
- Direct Speech: I will give you the money tomorrow.
- Reported Speech: He said he would give me the money tomorrow.
- Direct Speech: I won’t be able to make it to work today.
- Reported Speech: He said he wouldn’t be able to make it to work today.
Using would to show willingness in the past tense
When we want to express our willingness – or happiness – to do something in the present, we use “will.”
For example, “I will clean up that mess,” means I’m “willing” or “happy” to clean up the mess. Alternatively, if we are not happy to do something, we might say “I won’t clean up your mess.”
When referring to somebody’s willingness in the past, we use “would” instead of “will.” In general, when using “would” in this way, we use it to express unwillingness. For example:
- She wouldn’t give him the answers to the quiz.
- She wouldn’t approve of his choice of furniture.
- He was a good friend who would listen to me talk about my worries.
Using would to show habits in the Past
When we want to describe habits in the past, we can use “would.” For example:
- When I was a kid, I would beg my parents to stay up late.
- Before I saw a psychiatrist, I wouldn’t leave the house without locking the front door five times.
Note that this use of “would” is like the use of “used to + infinitive,” also used to describe habits in the past.
Also, note that we may use “will” to describe habits in the present, but this comes up infrequently. For example, “He will chew his nails when nervous.”
Using would for Requests
A common use of “will” and “would” is when we want to make requests. The two can be used interchangeably in this case, although “would” is generally considered a little politer:
- Will you close the door?
- Would you close the door?
The Second Conditional
We use “would + infinitive” when using the second conditional. For example:
- If my car was working, I would go to work today.
- If she was single, I would ask her on a date.
The Third Conditional
We use “would + have + past participle” when using the second conditional. For example:
- If my car had been working, I would have gone to work today.
- If I had known she was married, I wouldn’t have asked her on a date.
We use “would” when expressing a wish, such as in the following examples:
- I wish I wouldn’t freeze when speaking in public.
- I wish she would remember my birthday.
With set phrases to talk about what we want
Much like when using “would” to express willingness, we use “would” with certain set phrases. For example:
- We would like to know what you think.
- I would prefer coffee to tea.
- She would rather talk to her friend about it first.
- Would she mind looking outside for a minute?