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Concourse 2

Understanding will and would


The auxiliary 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.


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), willodlĂ­ce (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 meanings can be identified in Modern English:

  1. I will leave now (the sense of be about to)
  2. I will write soon (the sense of promise)
  3. Would that the rain stopped (the sense of wish)
  4. I will not have it! (the sense of desire)
  5. I would often walk the dogs there (the sense of habit or repetition of actions)

The words carried and still carry these 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 confusion, therefore, arises because we can no longer look at the form of the verb to distinguish between the subjunctive use of the verb (to express conditionality or doubt), the predictive use of the verb (to express futurity) and the volitional use of the verb (to express willingness).

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 and that, for the verb will is would.  So, we can use that form in:
    I wish my mother would arrive
    She looked as if she would be sick
    I would if I could

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
    I knew there would be a problem
which is the past of
    I know there will be a problem


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


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.
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 event happening in the future.
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"

There are levels of volition:

  1. Weak volition with the verb unstressed and often used in the 2nd person as in, for example:
        Will you open the window, please?
        He'd come if someone asks him

  2. Medium-strength volition, often in the 1st person and often implying a promise or undertaking of some kind.  For example:
        I won't bother you with my troubles
        We'd come early to help get things ready if you want

    When volition applies to the first person, as it does in these examples, you will find this called commissive modality (a subcategory of deontic modality) elsewhere on this site.  The sense of obligation is there but it is a self-imposed obligation, hence the commissive.  For more, see the guide to types of modality, linked below.
  3. Strong volition, with the verb stressed, often in the 3rd person and implying insistence which the speaker disapproves of, usually.  This form is never contracted to 'll or 'd.  For example:
        He will argue with me
    would drink too much at parties
    (It is probably worth noting that the use of shall instead of will here means that it is the speaker's insistence not someone else's as in, e.g.:
        She shall marry him!)

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
    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
    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:

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 a medium-strength 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:

There is a third possibility in that we sometimes use the form will to refer not to our own willingness or a future prediction but to an obligation placed on another (deontic modality).  For example:
    I'm sure my staff will help you with that
strongly implies the speaker's present willingness to impose a responsibility on others.
And, for example:
    You will not speak to your father like that
does not refer at all to the future.  It refers to a current command.

A straightforward way to understand the difference between will as a modal auxiliary and will as a tense-forming auxiliary is to compare it to the verb have.
For example, in:
    I have seen the boss
the verb have is acting as a primary auxiliary, forming a perfect tense of the verb see.  No problem, but in:
    I have to see my boss
the verb is clearly a modal auxiliary and expresses a sense of obligation (deontic modality, technically).
By the same process, we can see that in:
    She will turn four next week
the verb will is acting as a primary auxiliary verb forming the prospective aspect of the verb turn but in:
    You're tired so I'll do the diving
the verb expresses volition and is a dynamic modal auxiliary verb.
Two more examples:
    The train will arrive at platform 6
we have an example of will acting to form a tense and it can be considered a primary auxiliary verb but in:
    I will marry you if you give up drinking
the verb is modal insofar as it denotes the speaker's current willingness and that is the job of modal auxiliary verbs.

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.
Both those guides are linked in the list at the end.

wish 3

Meanings 3 and 4: wishes and desires


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 as in:
            I wish the sun would come out
  2. The hortative:
        directed at changing someone else's behaviour (exhortative) or getting them to cooperate (cohortative) as in:
            I wish you would be more tolerant
            I wish you would help me with this
The 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 and also occurs in the past as one would expect.
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

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 as well as the personal view of the desirability of something.

The hortative
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

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.
As was noted, the hortative comes in two flavours and both can be expressed using will/would:
    Will you get that for me?
    Would we be better working together?

There is more on suasion (the optative and hortative) on this site linked in the list of related guides at the end.

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 or future habits, routines or propensities and would for those in the past.  Like this:

For example:
    Speeding drivers will be stopped by the police
that is what customarily happens (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
    I'll take my holidays in June from now on
that is what I predict will be my habit.
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)
For more on this, see the guide to talking about the past, linked below.

Related guides
tenses where you will find more on some of the tense forms mentioned above
talking about the past 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
suasion for more on optative and hortative expressions
context where face-threatening acts are discussed
primary auxiliary verbs this guide also considers will / shall / will as a primary auxiliary, tense-forming verb
a lesson on will and would this is in the learners' section of the site.  Use it if you like.

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 famously replied, "Well (giggle) he would, wouldn’t he?"  This phrase was in the third edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1979).
Johnson, ML, 1927, A Modern English - Old English Dictionary, available online at https://old-engli.sh/dictionary.php