Will, Would and Used to

The Uses of WIll, Would and Used to

The modal auxiliaries will, would, and particularly the semi-modal, used to, are a special form in English used to express habitual or characteristic meanings.

A.   Uses of Will and Would

We can use will (for the present) and would (for the past) to express:

1.   Habitual or characteristic behavior:

  • Every day John will come home from school and turn on the Tv.
  • He would often come and talk to her when he had finished working.

2.   Things that are or were always true:

  • The river will overflow its banks every spring.
  • During the war, people would eat all kinds of things that we don’t eat now.
Important Hint! 

Note that we don’t use will or would in the same way to express a given occasion. Compare the following:

  • Each time I gave him a problem he would solve it for me.
  • Last night I gave him a problem and he solved it for me.
    → (Note: not … he would solve it …)

However, we can also use will not (won’t) and would not (wouldn’t) in either case. Compare the following:

  • She would / wouldn’t walk the five miles to her place of work. (characteristic behavior) and
  • He wouldn’t say what was wrong when I asked him.

3.   Using Will or Would for criticism

In speech, we can use will or would to criticize people’s habitual behaviours or characters. Survey the following expressions:

  • She just won’t do the washing up when I ask her.
  • I was happy when Ryan left. He would talk about people behind their backs.

4.   Using Will to draw conclusions

We can use will to draw conclusions or state assumption about things that are the case now. Survey the following examples:

  • Martina will be at home by now. Let’s go and see her.
  • You will know that Ewan and Lucy are engaged. (= I assume you already know)

B.   Uses of Would and Used to

When we talk about repeated actions that took place in the past that don’t happen now we can use either would or used to + infinitive. However, we can use would only if the time reference is clear. Compare the following sentences:

  • We used to play in the garden.
    → (not We would play …, as time reference not given)
  • Whenever we went to my uncle’s house, we would / used to play in the garden.

We can use used to but not would when we express past states that have changed:

  • The pharmacy used to be over there.
  • Didn’t you use to have red hair?
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Important Hint!  

Note that we don’t use either used to or would when we say exactly how many times in total something happened, how long something took, or that a single event happened at a given time. Survey the following expressions.

  • We visited Switzerland four times during the 1990’s.
    →(not We would / used to visit …)
  • She went Jamaica last month.
    →(not She would / used to go to Jamaica last month.)

C.   Using would / will have + past participle

To talk about an unreal or an imaginary situation that might have happened in the past, but didn’t — we use would have + past participle. Survey the following sentence:

  • I would have been happy to see him, but I didn’t have time.

However, to say that we think a past situation actually happened, we use will have + past participle. Survey the example sentence below.

  • As it was cloudy, few people will have seen last night’s lunar eclipse. (rather than … would have seen …)