Understanding the Definition of Modal Verbs: The Meanings of Would


The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definitions of the modal verb would:

  1. Formerly past tense of will.
  2. The feeling or expression of a conditional or undecided desire or intention.
  3. Desire to, wish to, have a mind to (do something); often also implying intention.
  4. Expressing voluntary action, or conscious intention directed to the doing of what is expressed by the principal verb.
  5. Expressing natural disposition to do something, and hence habitual action.
  6. Expressing potentiality, capacity, or sufficiency.
  7. As auxiliary of the future tense with implication of intention or volition.
  8. As auxiliary of future expressing a contingent event, or a result to be expected, in a supposed case or under particular conditions (with the condition expressed by a conditional, temporal, or impersonal clause, or otherwise implied).

The modal verb would firstly expresses conditionality and contingency. For example:

  • If I were president, I would spend more on education. (My being president is the condition necessary for my spending more on education.)
  • I would have warned you had I been asked. (My having been asked was the condition necessary for my warning you.)
  • If I were a rich girl, then I would have all the money in the world. (My having all the money in the world is the contingency for my being a rich girl.)

The modal verb would secondly expresses futurity including decisions, predictions, intentions, and promises within past tense constructions. For example:

  • He said he would help tomorrow. (He said, "I will help tomorrow.")
  • She told me she would be in late today. (She told me, "I will be in late today.")
  • I said I would be there. (I said, "I will be there.")

The modal verb would thirdly expresses desires and preferences. Note that the expression of desires and preferences overlaps with the expression of futurity. For example:

  • I would like some sweet tea. (I desire some sweet tea.)
  • Would you prefer cake or pie? (Do you prefer cake or pie?)
  • She would like to travel to France. (She desires to travel to France.)

The modal verb would fourthly expresses suggestions. Note that the expression of suggestions overlaps with the expression of conditionality and contingency. For example:

  • I would take the interstate if I were you. (I suggest that you take the interstate.)
  • She would want to cook the sweet potatoes first. (It is suggested that she cook the sweet potatoes first.)
  • You would want to take the train to the museum. (It is suggested that you take the train to the museum.)

The modal verb would fifthly expresses offers. For example:

  • I would help you. (I am offering to help you.)
  • He would take your weekend shift. (He offers to take your weekend shift.)
  • I would bring the drinks. (I offer to bring the drinks.)

The modal verb would expresses requests and commands. For example:

  • Would you please pick up dessert? (I am requesting that you pick up dessert.)
  • Would you keep your voices down? (I command that you keep your voices down.)
  • Would you please pass the salt? (I request that you pass the salt.)

The modal verb would seventhly expresses habituality, specifically past habituality. Note that the habitual would can be replaced by the quasi-modal verb used to. For example:

  • I would walk to school every day. (I used to walk to school every day.)
  • He would always whine about everything. (He used to always whine about everything.)
  • We would go to the park as kids. (We used to go to the park as kids.)

As the former past tense form of the modal verb will, most of the meanings of the modal would overlap considerably with the meanings of the modal will. As with other modal verbs, there is also often an overlap in the individual meanings of the modal verb would.

Printable Download

For a printable reference sheet of the definitions of the modal verbs would, please download English Modal Verbs Definitions Reference Sheet.

This post is part of the series: Semantics and Pragmatics of English Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are difficult to define because of the because of the wide range of pragmatic uses of modal auxiliaries. This series provides some of the most frequent meanings of the nine English modals—can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would—through definitions and examples.
  1. English Modal Verbs: Can, Could, May, Might, Must, Shall, Should, Will, and Would
  2. English Modal Verbs: Can and May
  3. English Modal Verbs: Will and Shall
  4. English Modal Verbs: Could and Might
  5. English Modal Verbs: Would
  6. English Modal Verbs: Must and Should