Understanding Modal Verbs: How to use Would, Could, and Should Correctly 

Understanding modal verbs –  WOULD, SHOULD, COULD –  correctly is a big challenge to several English learners? Some might think that they can only use them to show actions that happen in the past. Yet, these words are so flexible that one could never imagine the countless situations in which we can use them.

Are you also confused about when and how to use them?  Then, great to have you here on our page because today, I’ll teach you how to use these modal verbs correctly.

In English grammar, would, should, and could are the three most commonly used modal verbs that get mixed up by a lot of ESL learners. If you don’t have any idea what these words are, we call them auxiliary verbs or modal verbs in English. Grammatically, we define these words as past tenses of will, shall, and can. However, you may understand these words more from seeing sentences rather than from definitions.

Are you ready for our discussion today? If yes, let’s learn more about grammar by understanding the modal verbs WOULD, SHOULD, COULD to you with this detailed and comprehensive explanation about these modal verbs.

Would

In English grammar, “would” is the past tense of will. Interestingly, this modal verb is probably the most useful word of its kind. We even use this auxiliary verb to express the present tense.

We can use it in several situations like the ones we have below:

1. We use would to ask questions.

Would you like some cookies? = Do you want some cookies?

Would you like to grab some snacks now? = Please grab some snacks now.

With who, what, when, where, why, how:

How would they do that difficult task?

What time would you have dinner?

Grammar Tip:  In our sample sentences above, we can say that would function similarly like will.

2. We use would to make polite requests.

I would like more cookies, please. = I want more cookies, please.

I would like you to grab some snacks now. = I would like you to grab some snacks now

3. We use would to show a different response if the past had been different.

I would have assisted you if I had known you were there.

Explanation:  I didn’t know that you were there. This “not knowing” occurred before me not assisting you.)

Ron would’ve missed the train if Jessa hadn’t reminded him of the train schedule.

Explanation:  First Jessa reminded him. If her response had been to remind, then next John would have been missing the train schedule

4. We use it to tone down strong, controversial statements-not recommended in formal essays.

Tony would have justified his opinion in the meeting, but sadly, he failed to.

I would have to say that your plan seems too ambitious.

Grammar Tip: Here, “would” has a similar meaning to do but less emphatic.

5. We use would to explain an outcome to a hypothetical situation.

If I win the lottery, I would buy myself a Lamborghini truck.

Grammar Alert: This structure is the one we are using in Second Conditional (i.e. If + past simple, present conditional)

6. To show habitual past action.

7. Would is used to show repetitive past action.

The ice would become liquid when you take it out from the freezer, then it would turn solid when you put it back inside again.

For quite some time a space shuttle would float in space, then it would land back down on earth after every mission.

Explanation:  The space shuttle was in space and then lands on the ground several times.

8. To show a preference between two choices, used with rather or sooner.

I would sooner die than face them. = I prefer death in place of facing them.

She would rather sing than dance. = She prefers singing to dancing.

9. We use would to show wish or desire.

Some people would permit to legalize the use of marijuana. = Some people want to legalize the use of marijuana.

Several countries would support a civil union rather than same-sex marriage. = Some people want to support a civil union rather than same-sex marriage.

They wish he would leave. = They want him to leave.

10. Would is used to show intention or plan.

He said he would arrive early. = He said he was planning to arrive early.

11. We can also use it to show choice.

She would put off the test if she could.

Explanation: In this sentence, it means that it’s her choice is to delay taking the test, but she doesn’t have the ability to delay taking it.

12. We use would to express doubt.

His answer would seem to be correct. = His answer is probably correct.

The argument stated by the jury would seem to show transparency about the case. = The argument would is probably showing transparency about the case.

13. Would is used to show future likelihoods relative to past action.

She estimated she would get to the house around 7 p.m. Her family would have dinner ready for her.

Explanation: Here, the first sentence means she believed her house arrival time was going to be about 7:00 p.m. The “estimating” (or believing) happened in the past, yet the arrival is going to occur later. The second sentence predicts that, at that future time, dinner will be ready for her.

You might find this odd but there is really a difference in the way had and have can change the way “would: works in the sentence:

Would you had changed your mind. = I wish you had changed your mind.

Would you have changed your mind. = If circumstances had been different, is it possible that you might have changed your mind?

Should

Should, in English grammar, is the past tense of shall. But unlike would, it is an auxiliary verb with a few uses, not all of which are in the past tense. We use should in the following occasions.

1. We use it to ask questions.

Should you have fixed the broken door? = Were you supposed to have fixed the broken door?

Should we turn in our homework now? = Are we supposed to turn in our homework now?

Grammar Tip: Here, should means about the same thing as ought.

2. Should is used to show obligation.

3. We also use it to show a possible future event.

If I should save enough next week, I will buy myself a new pair of shoes.

Grammar Tip: Think of should as do; furthermore, should could be left out of the above sentence, leaving, “If I should save enough next week, I will buy myself a new pair of shoes.” Alternately, if could be left out of the sentence: “Should I save enough next week, I will buy myself a new pair of shoes.”

4. To express a hypothetical situation.

Should you wish to do so, you may have hot cocoa and cake. = If you wish to do so, you may have hot cocoa and cake.

5. We use it to express what is likely.

Annie should be here by 10 AM so that we can start the meeting early.

Grammar Tip: Think of should as ought to, or probably will.

6. To politely express a request or direct statement.

I should like to eat early dinner now. = I want to eat early now.

I should think that reforestation is necessary for mother earth to recover from global warming. = I think that reforestation is necessary for mother earth to recover from global warming.

Could

Apart from would and should, we also have the modal verb could in English grammar. Technically, could is the past tense of can. And just like should, it is an auxiliary verb with a few uses, not all of which are in the past tense.

We use this modal verb in the following situations.

1. As the past tense of can:

In the past, all the people could breathe fresh air even in big cities. = In those days, all the people had the chance to breathe fresh air even in big cities.

2. We use could to ask questions.

Could you have fixed the broken door? = Is it possible that you have fixed the broken door?

Could I go now? = May I go now; am I allowed to go now?

3. Could is used to show possibility.

I could study harder than I do. = I have the potential to study harder than I do.

I want to see the Aurora because I knew the night view could be amazing. = I knew that the night view could be amazing.

4. To express tentativeness or politeness:

She could be wrong. = She may be wrong.

Could you hand me the pen, please? = Please hand me the pen.

Would, Should and Could: The Bottom Line

Understanding modal verbs – Would, Should, and Could –  are tricky yet helpful to you as a would-be English speaker. Technically, they are the past form of will, shall, and can. But besides using it to show past actions, we can also use them to make a request, ask questions, show possibility, express hypothetical situations and possibilities, etc.

When you understanding modal verbs in English, especially would, should, and could, you got a tip to always follow, and that is this: You could use these three auxiliaries if you would, and you should!

Want to learn more about Verbs?

CLICK THIS to learn more about Irregular Verbs. 

CLICK THIS to learn more about English Verbs. 

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