How to Use Would, Could and Should Like a Native Speaker
Have you ever been in a situation where you would have used the right word, but you just couldn’t think of it? In today’s video I’m going to explain the differences between the modal verbs could, would and should. By the end of this lesson you should be able to use them correctly. Let’s get started!
Today we’re going to start by talking about the similarities and differences between could and would and I’ll give you lots of examples of how we normally use them. We’ll then go on to talk about the word should.
Are Could and Would the Past Tense?
Okay, first things first. Could is used as the past tense of can, and would is used as the past tense of will.
|I can play the piano. (now)
I could play the piano when I was young. (past)
I’m sure we will be late to the party. (now)
Whenever we use “can” in the present to talk about an ability or something that was generally possible, then we use “could” to talk about the same thing in the past. “Can you understand today’s lesson?” becomes “Could you understand yesterday’s lesson?”
Reported Speech using Could and Would as Past Tense
This is similar to how we use could and would in reported speech. Reported speech is a fancy name for repeating what someone else said. When we “report” what someone else told us, we move all of the verbs back one tense into the past. So if your friend Jorge says, “Can you and Henry come and help me move some boxes tomorrow?” when you share this information with Henry you’ll say, “Jorge asked if we could come to help him tomorrow.”
Can becomes could in reported speech, just like will becomes would. Here’s another example:
|Lily: “Will you join us at the bar after work?”
Lily asked if we would join them at the bar after work.
Could and Would for Possibility vs. Imaginary or Hypothetical Situations
The next big difference between the modal verbs could and would is to talk about situations that are possible vs. situations that are imaginary or hypothetical.
Could is used to talk about things that are possible in the present. Like, “We could go to the movies tonight.” This means that something is possible, it’s an option. We use the negative form couldn’t to show the opposite – that something is either impossible or didn’t happen in the past.
Let’s look at some examples:
|The weather is beautiful today, we could go to the park.
We could try that new Thai place for dinner tonight.
These sentences both sound like suggestions. We use could in the same way to talk about things that are possible but that we aren’t completely certain of. For example:
|It could rain later today. (it’s possible)
They could be at home, I see their car in the driveway.
In these sentences, I’m expressing something that is possible, but that I’m not totally sure about.
Now what happens when we use the negative form couldn’t? Pay attention to the pronunciation here, if you say “could not” it sounds very formal. Native speakers use the contracted form /couldn’t/. Couldn’t is used to express that a past event was not possible.
|Amy couldn’t have passed the test; she didn’t study at all.|
Okay, so now let’s take a look at would. We use would to talk about imaginary or hypothetical situations. These are situations that are not possible or likely to ever happen.
It might be fun to imagine what I would do if I were the president of the United States, but it’s not very likely that I’ll ever become president. (:
Other examples of imaginary sentences with would include things like:
|If I had more time, I would meditate for two hours every day. (but I don’t have time)
I would like to quit my job and move to the countryside. (but I’m not really going to)
A lot of imaginary sentences with would are conditional sentences. Both second and third conditional sentences use would.
Let’s take a quick look at those:
|Second conditional: If + past simple … would + infinitive
If I had her number, I would call her immediately. (but I don’t have her number)
Third conditional: If + past perfect … would + have + past participle
If he had studied harder, he would have passed the test. (and now he has to retake the test)
We use the second conditional to talk about things in the future which are not possible or likely; and we use the third conditional to talk about things in the past that didn’t happen, and the results of it not happening.
Again, it’s worth it to quickly talk about pronunciation here. Native speakers don’t usually say “I would” or “he would;” instead they use the contracted forms: I’d, or he’d. “I’d like some tea, please.”
“Would” for Invitations or Permission
Okay, now we’re getting to the third use of the words could and would, which is making suggestions and offers, and asking for permission. Earlier we talked about how we use could to talk about things that are possible. Well, suggestions are really just a way of expressing things that are possible, which is why we use could to make suggestions. “Hey, we could grab a coffee after today’s lesson. What do you think?”
However, when we want to make offers, we use would. Consider “would” an important part of your polite English vocabulary. If you went to have tea with the King of England, he would ask you, “Would you like some tea?” So whenever you’re in a situation where it’s important to be polite, use would for offers and invitations.
|Would you like another slice of cake?
Would you like to go to the school dance with me?
Now on to making requests and asking for permission. Making requests is another way of saying “asking someone to do something for you,” and asking for permission is another way of saying “asking someone if you can, or are allowed to, do something.” In both of these situations we can use either could or would without really changing the meaning of what we’re saying.
Requests include things like:
|Could you pass the salt?
Could I speak to Mr. Li, please?
Would you please open the window?
Would you please help me?
Now these requests are all pretty formal. Don’t forget that we can also use can to make informal requests. If you’re at home with your family or out having dinner with close friends, it would sound more natural to say, “Can you pass the salt,” or “Can you open the window.”
Let’s take a look at few common ways to ask for permission:
|Would you mind if I left early today?
Could I stay at your place for a couple of days next week?
Would it be okay if my friend Amy comes over tomorrow?
When it comes to making requests and asking for permission, there are a few set phrases that it’s helpful to memorize. Things like, “would you mind,” “would it be okay” and “Would you please” are all fixed expressions that you can use over and over again.
And of course, native speakers don’t really pronounce each word carefully and clearly. The phrase “would you mind” sounds more like “wuh-djoo mind.” It’s helpful to listen to how native speakers pronounce these phrases and practice repeating them.
“Should” for Suggestions or Advice
Last but not least, let’s talk about the modal verb should. Should doesn’t have as many uses as could and would. We mainly use should to give and request advice.
|Do you think I should start looking for a new job?
You should really get a better car!
They should start taking the project more seriously.
If you’re not sure what to do, you can always ask a trusted friend, “What should I do?” Or, “What do you think I should do?” And they’ll probably reply using would, because for them it’s an unreal situation (they’re not you). “If I were you, I would start looking for another job.”
We also use should to to talk about things we regret doing in the past, or things that we did in the past that we want to change or improve in the future.
|We shouldn’t have stayed up so late last night.
I should have studied harder for the exam.
They shouldn’t have had so much to drink.
As you can see, the pattern is should + have + past participle. In these sentences, we’re talking about something that has already happened that we would like to improve on or change in the future. So if I tell you, “I should have studied harder for the exam,” I’m also expressing that in the future I would like to study harder for exams.
And once more, native speakers will tend to use the contracted form, so “should have” becomes should’ve and “shouldn’t have” becomes shouldn’t-uv.”
Common Phrases to Memorize with Would, Could and Should
Example: Should I bring anything to your dinner party?
Example: You should really see a doctor for that issue you’ve been having.
Would you mind…?
Example: Would you mind closing the window? It’s cold!
Could you please…?
Example: Could you please pass the salt?
Would, Could and Should Pronunciation Tips
Native English speakers say these phrases quickly, turning the “you” with a “j” sound, like “Wouldja,” “Couldja” and Shouldja.”
Do you know the past conditional and how to use it? To learn more advanced grammar with “would,” “could” and “should,” learn with this lesson next on Using Could, Should and Would HAVE BEEN – Past Conditional English Grammar Lesson.