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Concourse 2

Understanding will and would

aha

The modal verb will and its past form, would, get a guide to themselves because they are the source of a great deal of error, much of it, regrettably, teacher induced.


knight

A little history

The words will and would derive from the same Old English verb: wyllan.
The word wyllan is connected to the Old English willa which meant mind, will, determination, purpose, pleasant thing.  Many connected words also meant something desirable such as willspell (good tidings), willodlíce (willingly) and willsele (a pleasant dwelling).
The verb wyllan had at least five distinct meanings:

  1. be about to (simple futurity)
  2. be willing to (promise)
  3. wish (hope)
  4. desire (want)
  5. be used to / used to (habit or repetition)

and all five can be identified in Modern English.  The word carried and still carries a number of meanings and it is the polysemous nature of the verb which causes the problems.  It doesn't help if teachers and coursebook writers can't disentangle the meanings, of course.
(Not discussed here is the transitive verb will meaning to make something happen by the power of thought.  Also left out of this guide is the use of the verb will to mean leave as a legacy or the noun will as in to make a will or willpower.  If those are thrown into the mix when the modal auxiliary forms are being considered, learners will get confused.)

The modern word would is derived from the past tense (and past subjunctive) of wyllan which was wolde.
The past simple and the past subjunctive were distinguishable in Old English but in modern English the tenses have the same form for all verbs except the verb be.

The past subjunctive appears in subordinate clauses, referring to an unreal or improbable present or future event / state.
When we say, for example:
    I wish my mother were here
    It looks as if she knew him
    I would go now if I were you

we are using the past subjunctive form of the verb.

The past simple of will appears when we say, for example:
    He said his mother would come tomorrow
which is the past of
    He says his mother will come tomorrow
and
    I knew there would be a problem
which is the past of
    I know there will be a problem


5

The five central meanings

We need to distinguish carefully between the five meanings of the Old English verb wyllan and its past and past subjunctive form to understand how the modern verbs will and would, function to make meaning.

future 1

Meanings 1 and 2: futurity vs. willingness

2

As we saw, the Old English verb signified futurity but also willingness.
The modern English verb does the same and may signal pure futurity or willingness (also known as volition) to do something.  It is not arguable that willingness generally refers to an action in the future or the future in the past but signalling willingness refers to the current situation, not to the future act itself.
It is, to be fair, not always easy, but usually possible, to untangle the two commonest meanings of will and would.
The problem arises when teachers or the materials they use confuse these first two meanings of the verb.
Here are some examples of what is meant:

Example Comment Use of will / would
Will you marry me? This is not asking about the future.  This question is concerned with finding out the addressee's current attitude.
It does not require the responder to speculate about future events and will is not being used to refer to future time at all.
It means Are you willing NOW to marry me?  The question is about the present not the future.
volition
Would you marry me if I were rich? This is the same verb, with the same meaning, with the subordinate clause in the subjunctive.
It means: Given an unlikely circumstance (my being rich), are you willing IN YOUR CURRENT IMAGINATION to marry me?
Will she marry him in September? This is a question about the future because it asks the hearer to speculate about the future.
It is not asking whether she wants or is willing to marry before September but concerns the likelihood of the even happening in the future.
futurity
She thought she would marry before she was thirty. This also refers to the future but to the future in the past.  It is akin to the back-shifting of tenses in reported or indirect speech such as in:
    He said he thought it would rain
which is one way of reporting
    "I think it's going to rain"

A special example of the difference in meaning comes when we consider conditional sentences.  The usual rule is that we can only use will or would once in conditional sentences (in BrE) so, for example:
    I'll come if you call
is allowed, but
    *I'll come if you will call
is not allowed
and
    If you won the lottery, you would be able to marry her
is allowed, but
    *If you would win the lottery, you would be able to marry her
is not.
The rule works fine providing the meaning of the verb is concerned with futurity or with an imaginable, if unlikely, or impossible future.

However, it falls down as soon as we consider volition or willingness.  Then we can have, for example:
    I'll come if you will do the driving
or
    You would be healthier if you would cut down your smoking
In both these cases, we have the first verb referring to the future (will come, would be) but the second (will do, would cut down) referring to volition so repeating the verb (but not its meaning) is allowable.

The two meanings are not always easily separable.  For example:
futurity

The problem in the middle lies with the intention of the speaker.  It may be a prediction about the future based on sound evidence or it may be an expression of willingness.  Only the whole context allows us to see which is meant.
The distinction is important because the intrinsic meaning of an expression of willingness (which is a present reference) has to be separated from the extrinsic meaning of inevitability concerning future events (which is a proper future reference).
If we don't have this clear in our heads when we are setting the language in context, we will induce errors in our learners.
A slightly more technical way of saying all this is:

  • will and would used to talk about the future are in the realm of epistemic modality (i.e., referring the likelihood or otherwise of an event)
  • will and would to talk about volition are in the realm of dynamic modality (i.e., referring to a person's ability or willingness)

For more examples, go to the guide to talking about the future in English.
For more on the distinction between types of modality refer to the guide to types of modality.


wish 3

Meanings 3 and 4: wishes and desires

4

When we talk about wishes and desires, we are in the area of unreal events.  If it is currently raining, one can wish for it to stop but not wish for it to start.  If we are a smoker we can wish we weren't but not wish we smoked.
These two ideas fall under two types of suasion:

  1. The optative: directed at things we cannot personally affect or change
  2. The hortative: directed at changing someone else's behaviour (exhortative) or getting them to cooperate (cohortative)
The optative
optative
The optative can be expressed using either will or would, although, because we are usually referring to unreal events outside our control, would is more common in this function.
For example:
    I wish it would rain
    I hope it will rain
    I wished he would say something
    She wishes he will ask her
    I hope the sun will shine

etc.
As can be seen from these examples, the optative use of the verb is closely related to the epistemic uses we looked at above.  The verb is being used to talk about likelihood or unlikelihood.
The hortative
beg
When we are trying to alter someone else's behaviour, or get them to cooperate with ours, we can do so from a position of authority (so are happy to use will) or from a position of inferiority or equality (when would is more useful because it distances and sounds more polite).  Because these are imperatives of a sort and threaten the face of the hearer, they are often phrased as interrogatives to allow the possibility of their being refused.
For example:
    Will you close the door, please?
    Would you mind waiting?
    Would you stop now?
    Will you please get out?
    Will you get that for me?
    Would you like some cake?
    I'd like to pay, now, please

    I would rather stay, if you don't mind
    I would sooner not do that

etc.
This use of the verb is more closely akin to the dynamic use of the verb seen in the examples above because it refers to people's willingness to do something, not the likelihood or otherwise of their doing it.

smoking 5

Meaning 5: habits, propensities and routines

The original Old English verb, wyllan, was used to express habits as well as what one is accustomed to.  Both meanings are alive in Modern English.  Both forms of the verb, will and would, are used in these senses.
As one might expect, will is used for present habits, routines or propensities and would for those in the past.  Like this:

will
For example:
    Speeding drivers will be stopped by the police
that is what they are accustomed to doing (not necessarily a predicted future)
    John will play the music loudly
that is his habit (from which I may draw conclusions about future behaviour)
    Immigration officers will question travellers closely
that is their general behaviour
    Burglars will often break into unoccupied houses
that is their modus operandi
would
For example:
    He would always argue the point
that was his general response
    I would expect better work from a professional decorator
this is my current, but long-held, opinion
    Well, he would, wouldn't he? (see reference a. below)
this is what we expect from him
    When I was a child I would often have to stay late at school
this routinely happened to me (often expressed with used to)
etc.
For more on this, see the guide to talking about always.


Related guides
tenses where you will find more on some of the tense forms mentioned above
talking about always for more on would as an expression of routine (contrasted with used to)
talking about the future for more on the need to distinguish between epistemic and dynamic modality with will
types of modality for more on dynamic, epistemic, deontic and alethic modality
context where face-threatening acts are discussed
a lesson on will and would this is in the learners' section of the site.  Use it if you like.


References:
a.: When the defence counsel at the trial of Stephen Ward, pointed out that Lord Astor denied an affair or having even met her, Mandy Rice-Davies replied, "Well (giggle) he would, wouldn’t he?"  This phrase was in the third edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1979).
Johnson, M L, 1927, A Modern English - Old English Dictionary, available online at http://old-engli.sh/dictionary.php