Confused about when to use will and would? You’re not the only one. Lots of non-native speakers of English are confused about using these words. Some of that confusion is because people think that would is only the past tense of will. But it has lots of other uses, so let’s have a look!
When to use will
We use will in three main ways:
- To talk about things we think will happen in the present or future
- To talk about our immediate decisions or actions
- To make promises or requests
When to use would
Would is the past tense form of will. This is an irregular verb conjugation. Even though would is a past tense, we don’t only use it to talk about the past. Here are the main ways we use would:
- To talk about the past (OK, that one was obvious)
- To be polite
- In conditional sentences when we imagine something
Talking about the past and the future
When we talk about the present or the future, and things we think or believe are going to happen, we often use will.
- I think I will see Donna at work tomorrow.
- I hope I will go on holiday next year.
- Ben won’t help me.
We use would when we talk about the past:
- I thought I would see Donna at work today but she was ill.
- I hoped I would go on holiday last year, but we didn’t have enough money.
- Ben wouldn’t help me.
Immediate decisions and actions
We use will when we decide to do something at the same time as we’re speaking. This is in contrast to other future tenses that we use when we made the decision earlier and we are telling someone about our plans. Here are some examples with will:
- Is that someone at the door? I’ll go and check.
- I will clean up these dishes – thanks for cooking.
Promises and requests in English
When we make promises to someone, we use will.
- I will help you move house on Friday.
- Dad will pick you up from the pub later.
When we are making a request, we can either use will or would. This depends on how polite we want to be; we might be polite if we’re asking someone for a really big favour, if they’re a work colleague, or if we don’t know someone that well. Look at the examples here and imagine the different contexts they are in:
- Dad, will you pick me up from work later?
- James, would you please drive me home from work? My car is at the mechanic.
- Will you carry this for me?
- Would you mind helping me up the stairs with this?
Using would in hypothetical sentences
We can use would to talk about something we think is unlikely to happen in the future. This can be a bit confusing for learners, because we said that would is a past tense. In English, we use past tenses to create distance between us and what we’re talking about. This might be distance in time, it might be distance in order to be polite, or it might be distance in order to say I’m imagining, or I don’t think this is going to happen. This last part is what we’re looking at now.
- It would be very expensive to rent a car in July.
- Alex would make a good mother.
Will and would in conditionals
There are four basic types of conditional sentences in English: zero, first, second and third. We use will in the first conditional and would in the second and third.
As you might expect, the first conditional talks about things we think are going to happen in the future:
- If I go to Italy this year, I will stay in Rome.
- If I eat any more of this cake, I will feel ill.
The second and third conditionals are more hypothetical, and this is why we use would. The second conditional talks about imaginary present events and unlikely future events:
- If I went to Italy this year, I would stay in Rome. (The idea in this sentence is that you don’t think you will go to Italy.)
- If I were a man, I would probably be taller.
The third conditional talks about past events, and imagines how they could be different:
- If I had gone to Italy last year, I would have stayed in Rome.
- If I hadn’t eaten that piece of cake, I wouldn’t have felt ill.
Will you feel more confident using these words now? Would you like to learn more?