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The Meanings and Uses of Will, Shall, Would and Should

The main use of the modal verb will is to form the future tense of lexical verbs, but it has other uses as well, such as asking someone to do something or saying that you are willing to do something.

Shall is sometimes used to form future tenses with I and we, but has other uses, such as asking for advice or expressing intentions.

Would and should are the past tenses of will and shall, but they have a number of other uses.

Present TensePast Tense
He says he will come.
I don’t expect there will be anyone interesting there.
I hope she won’t forget to come.
‘Will you ever forgive me?’ he asked.
‘Shall we ever meet again?’ I wondered.
He said he would come.
I didn’t expect there would be anyone interesting there.
I was hoping she wouldn’t forget to come.
He asked her if she would ever forgive him.
I wondered if we should ever meet again.

The Future Tense

Will is used with a bare infinitive to form the future tense in English.

  • The problem will no doubt soon be resolved. Will I ever see you again?
  • If you ask him, I’т sure he will lend you the money you need.
  • In these classes we will study the basic beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
  • I think you should go to bed now so that you will feel fresh for your exam tomorrow.
  • Just think where we’ll be this time next week.
  • You’ll easily recognize me. I’ll be wearing a red rose on my Jacket.
  • You won’t need your umbrella. I don’t think it’s going to rain.

Will is often used to speak of something that you are predicting will happen in the future:

  • Mum and Dad will be so proud of you.
  • His grandparents will be so pleased to see his new wife.

When talking about plans for the future, the present continuous tense and the simple present tense are often used:

  • We’re leaving tomorrow morning.
  • We leave at five o’clock.

Again, while will is used when making a decision or stating an intention about some future action (e.g. I‘ll buy the theatre tickets and you hook a table at the restaurant), once the decision has been made it is normally referred to by a present continuous tense (I’т buying the tickets and Jean is booking a table at the restaurant).

Will have is used to refer to something that you expect to have happened by some time in the future:

  • will have finished this Job by Friday.
  • By the end of their second year, students will have chosen the subjects they wish to study in more depth.
  • Will they have been able to get all the information they need before the meeting?

Will and shall in the future tense

Formerly, there was a rule in English grammar that will should only be used in the second and third person to form the future tense, and that for the first person, you should use shall. For example:

  • They will probably be back next week. BUT We shall probably be back next week.
  • Will he ever see us again? BUT
  • Shall I ever see him again?
  • By tomorrow night, he will have reached Paris. BUT By tomorrow night, we shall have reached Paris.

This rule, which never applied in American English In any case but only in standard British English, is not adhered to as much now as it once was. Will is nowadays much commoner than shall for straightforward future and future perfect tenses, though shall is not incorrect.

Would and should in reported speech after a verb in the past tense

After a verb of saying, etc in the past tense, will is replaced by would:

  • He says he will come. — He said he would come.

Similarly, shall may be replaced by should:

  • I wonder if we shall ever meet again. I wondered if we should ever meet again.

However, this use of should is now considered rather formal, literary or old-fashioned, and would would be more normal now:

  • I wondered if we would ever meet again.

Would is also sometimes used to refer to something that has happened in the past but which, looking from some earlier time in the past, is going to happen in the future. This usage is particularly common in descriptions of people’s lives and achievements:

  • Hemingway spent some time as a war correspondent in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Later he would write a bestseller on this very theme.


Will is used to say what someone or something is willing to do.

  • We will never give in to blackmail.
  • Some children just will not eat vegetables.
  • will not be laughed at like this.
  • Mum, Julie keeps annoying me. She won’t leave me alone.
  • For some reason the car won’t start.
  • will not tolerate such rudeness.
  • Any of our sales executives will be happy to advise you.
  • The manager will see you now, Mrs Brown.
  • Will you marry me?

The past tense of will in this sense is would:

  • When I was a child, I would never eat cheese.
  • The car wouldn’t start this morning.

In conditional sentences, use would have to talk about something you were theoretically willing to do in the past (that is, you were willing to do it //the situation arose, but it didn’t):

  • If they had asked me, I would have told them what you told me.
  • Had I known you needed help, I would have come earlier.

Would is also used to express a more tentative or theoretical willingness to do something in the present or the future:

  • ‘Would you marry him?’
  • ‘No, I’d never marry a man like that.’
  • They would never give in to blackmail.
  • She’d do anything for her children.
  • wouldn’t dream of hurting them.
  • would come if I could, but unfortunately I have another engagement that evening.

Shall is used in formal or old-fashioned English, especially in the second and third person, to give a more forceful or determined expression of intentions, to say that something will definitely happen in the future:

  • Everything shall be done according to your commands, master. You shall go to the ball, Cinderella!
  • If you marry me, you shall have everything your heart desires.

Wishes, Requests and Instructions

Will is used to ask or tell someone to do something.

  • Will you open the window, please?
  • You will put that knife down right now!
  • For goodness sake, will you just be quiet for a minute!
  • Be quiet, will you!
  • You won’t tell her what I said, will you?

Would can also be used to ask or tell someone to do something. It is slightly more polite than will:

  • Would you close that window for me? It’s a bit draughty.
  • Would you please stop shouting. I’m not deaf.

To ask someone if they want you to do something or if they think you ought to do it, or to ask for advice about yyhat to do, use shall:

  • Shall I open a window?
  • Shall I switch the television on?
  • Shall we tell her or not?
  • I’ll just close this window, shall I?
  • Someone has stolen all my money. What on earth shall I do?

To invite someone to do something with you, use shall we:

  • Shall we go to the concert tomorrow night?
  • Let’s go to the concert, shall we?

Shall is also used when you are wondering about doing something (that is, when you are asking yourself whether you should do it):

  • Shall I lend her the money or shan’t I?

When you are wondering in a rather more uncertain way about whether or not you ought to do something, use should:

  • Should I lend her the money or shouldn’t I?
  • Should we tell Mum where we’re going?

When referring to the past, use should have:

  • Should have lent her the money when she asked for it?
  • I wonder whether we should have told Mum where we’re going.

Should is used when making recommendations or suggestions, or when talking about what someone ought to do or what ought to happen.

  • You should discuss it with your husband before making up your mind.
  • You shouldn’t go there alone, you know.
  • She shouldn’t go climbing when she’s pregnant.
  • You really should try this new brand of coffee.
  • What should I do with these old shoes?
  • If your money has been stolen, you should go to the police.
  • There should be a full stop at the end of that sentence.
  • You should hear what she says about you when you’re not here. (= I think it would be a good thing if you knew what she says; you would be surprised at what she says)

When referring to the past, use should have:

  • I didn’t know what to do when my money was stolen. What should have done?
  • What should have said when she accused me of lying?
  • You should have heard her when she found out that she hadn’t got the Job. (= it’s a pity that you didn’t hear what she said)

Should is also used in giving instructions about what ought to be done:

  • Luggage should be placed securely in the lockers before take-off.
  • Passengers should not attempt to get off before the train has stopped in the station.
  • Applications should be sent to the address below.

Will, on the other hand, gives orders about what must be done or is going to be done:

  • All of you boys will report to the principal first thing tomorrow.
  • You will stay in and finish your homework.

Shall is used in formal English to express a formal order or a regulation:

  • There shall be an end to all hostilities between the opposing forces.
  • Users of the library shall not bring food or drink into the library.

Would and should are used with I and we to give advice and make suggestions:

  • wouldn’t go there alone if I were you.
  • You should discuss it with your husband before making up your mind.
  • We would suggest that you discuss it with your husband first.
  • would say that black shoes would go better with that dress.

Should can be used instead of a verb in the subjunctive mood after verbs and nouns expressing requests, suggestions and orders. Compare the examples below with those on page 77 where the corresponding verbs are in the subjunctive:

  • It has been suggested that the coffee machine should be replaced.
  • It was imperative that everyone should arrive at the same time.
  • He insisted that she should leave immediately.
  • Someone has made the suggestion that she should be given an award for bravery.
  • She left clear instructions that all her money should be given to charity when she died.

Will is used to invite someone to do or to have something, often with the lexical verb have:

  • Will you have another piece of cake?
  • Will you have dinner with me tonight?

Would is similarly used in making polite offers or proposals:

  • Would you like another piece of cake?
  • Would your little boy like to stand in front of me so that he can see the parade?
  • Would you care to have dinner with me this evening?

Would can be used to express a wish, a request or a preference:

  • I do wish you would hurry up!
  • We all wish they would stop the fighting in the Middle East.
  • If only she would tell me what’s wrong.
  • I wonder if you would be so kind as to open the door for me.
  • would prefer to leave now, if you don’t mind.
  • would be glad to receive your gardening catalogue at your earliest convenience.

With I and we, should is also correct, though it is now only found in more formal or rather old-fashioned language:

  • should just like to say how proud I am to have won this award.
  • We should prefer to stay here.

Would have and, in formal or old-fashioned language, should have are used when referring to something that happened in the past:

  • He gave me a cup of tea, but I would have preferred coffee.
  • would rather have had a cup of coffee.
  • should have preferred a glass of milk, actually.

Stating Probabilities and Expectations

Will is used to say that you think something is probable.

  • ‘There’s someone at the door.’ ‘Oh, that will be John.’
  • All the other guests will be there by now, and we’re going to be late.
  • I’m sure he’ll already know that the money is missing.
  • You won’t remember me. We haven’t seen each other for years.

You can also use should to refer to something that you expect to be the case, but with less certainty than when you use will:

  • That should be John now.
  • All the other guests should be there by now.
  • If nothing has gone wrong, they should be in Italy now.
  • According to this map, we should be somewhere near the cathedral.

Will have is used to describe something that you think has probably already happened:

  • They will probably all have arrived by now.
  • No doubt he will already have noticed that the money is missing.
  • You will have realized by now that I don’t know much about football.

To refer to something that probably happened in the past, use would have:

  • He would have realized even before he left the house that he was going to be late.
  • Because of the mist, she would probably not have known she was so close to the edge of the cliff.

Should have is used to describe something that you expect to have happened, but with less certainty:

  • They should have reached Italy this morning.

Would is used to express a more theoretical probability than will, that is, to talk about something that you expect to be true if a particular situation arises:

  • You would recognize his wife if you met her. She’s been on television.
  • It wouldn’t be safe for you to come home on your own at that time of night.
  • He wouldn’t remember her. He was just a little boy when he last met her.

Would have with verbs like think or expect describes something you expected but which did not happen:

  • would have expected her to spend more than half an hour with us. (but she didn’t)
  • You would have thought he had enough money to buy himself some decent clothes, (but he doesn’t seem to have)

Would with stress on it is used to say that something that has happened was to be expected.

  • That is just the sort of silly thing she ‘would say. (= she has said something silly, and that is the sort of thing she often does)
  • ‘She just burst into tears when they awarded her the prize.’
  • ‘She ‘would, wouldn’t she. She’s a very emotional person.’

Sometimes, this use of would is an expression of annoyance or criticism:

  • ‘She burst into tears when they awarded her the prize.’ ‘She ‘would, wouldn’t she. I hate all that false emotion at the Oscar ceremonies.’ (= that’s just the sort of thing I expect her to do, and it annoys me that she did it)
  • You ‘would say that, wouldn’t you. You never agree with me.

Would have also expresses surprise at something that has happened:

  • Who would ever have thought our little girl would one day be a famous pop star?
  • Our son a doctor! Who would have thought it?

Describing General Facts

Will is used to describe general facts.

  • This car will seat six people comfortably. (= there is enough room in it for six people)
  • Accidents will happen. (= accidents do happen; it is inevitable that accidents happen)
  • Boys will be boys. (= Boys always behave in a boyish way)
  • A good teacher will encourage students to report instances of bullying.
  • The school will always report to the police any student found in possession of drugs.

The past tense of will in this sense is would. Would is used to refer to habitual behaviour in the past:

  • My mother would always phone me on a Sunday evening.
  • Their father would beat them regularly.

Sometimes such a statement of what generally happens is intended as a criticism or a sign of irritation. In these cases, the word will or would is stressed:

  • She ‘will leave her bike out in the street. Well, some day it’ll get stolen, and then she’ll be sorry.
  • He ‘would keep on banging that drum, even though I asked him not to.

Sometimes a stressed would expresses irritation or frustration about a single event rather than a repeated event or a general fact:

  • I told you it was foolish to go skiing with a sore leg, but you ‘would insist on going, and now you say your leg is aching. (= I am annoyed because you refused to take my advice)
  • Oh, it ‘would start to rain just when I wanted to go for a walk! (= I am annoyed because it has started to rain)
  • The television ‘would break down just when the Arsenal-Manchester United match is coming on.

Expressing Reactions

Should is used in expressing reactions or making comments, ments, especially after adjectives or certain nouns + that.

  • I wasn’t surprised that she should feel so angry about it.
  • It’s odd that you should say that. That’s just what I was thinking.

Use should have when referring to the past:

  • It’s rather a pity that she should have missed the party.
  • It’s sad that he should have behaved like that.

Should and should have are also used when you want to say that something that has been suggested or that has happened is unreasonable or unjust:

  • I don’t know why it should always be me who washes the car.
  • I can’t understand why she should have said that.
  • Why should it be her who gets all the easy jobs?
  • How should I know where your socks are?

Expressing Purpose

Should is used when describing the purpose of an action.

  • In order that everyone should get an equal chance of winning the prize, everyone’s name will be put into this hat.

After so that, both would and should are used:

  • He came late at night so that no-one would (OR should) see him.

Should may also be used after in case:

  • I’ll leave my telephone number with you in case Moira should want to phone me.

The lexical verb can also be used without should:

  • I’ll leave my telephone number with you in case Moira wants to phone me.

Note the tenses used in conditional sentences:

  • If you ask her, she will help you.
  • If you asked her, she would help you.
  • If you’d asked her, she would have helped you.

Shall and should can, of course, be used instead of will and would with I and we:

Should may also be used in a conditional clause:

  • If Moira should phone, tell her I’ll call her back. (= if Moira phones, …)
  • Should Moira phone, tell her I’ll call her back.

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