The use of the modal “will” is a major problem for users of English. Here are a few examples:
a) It will rain today.
b) The CEO will visit us tomorrow.
c) I will send you the proposal tomorrow.
d) The meeting will be starting in a few minutes.
e) They left three hours ago, so they will have arrived by now.
Before you have a look at the answers explained below, have a think about the usage of “will” in these cases. Some reflect the time, but often modals reflect the attitude of the speaker.
a) Here there is a simple prediction about the future.
b) This concerns an event that has been planned for the future.
c) This represents a promise.
d) This represents a future event that will be in progress.
e) This represents a certainty that something happened in the past.
With predictions about the future that have been made in the past, we use “would” as in the following example:
We cashed the cheque yesterday, since we knew the bank would be closed today.
“Would” is often viewed as simply the past of “will”, which is true to some extent, but it has other purposes. Take a look at the two examples below:
1. Will you call me a taxi?
2. Would you call me a taxi?
Both are examples of requests and serve the same function of getting a taxi called.
Example (1) is more informal and probably used when we know the person well.
Example (2) is more polite and used if you do not know the person so well.
Since “would” is the past tense of “will”, a request using “would” pushes the time further from the present and makes the request less direct. If you want to make a stronger request, then you can use a question tag.
Call me a taxi, will you?
You wouldn’t expect a negative answer to this request, but should be careful when you use it or you will come across as rude and abrupt, especially if this is coupled with flat intonation.
Will/Would can also be used for offering help:
That must be heavy. I’ll carry it for you.
Would you like me to carry that for you? (you can’t use “will” for this kind of structure, but can use “shall”, e.g. Shall I carry that for you?)
“Will” is used for describing irritating habits in the present such as:
He will pick his teeth during meetings. (Note that you can’t use the contraction ’ll since “will” is stressed in the spoken form.)
Habits in the past use “would” such as:
My last boss would leave on the dot of five every day.
There is a wide range of other uses of “will”/”would” which would require a whole book, but I guess I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Guy Perring is Director, Professional Development Unit (PDU), at the British Council Malaysia. The PDU offers a wide range of learning opportunities from management and communication skills training to developing English skills. Contact the British Council in Kuala Lumpur (03-27237900) or Penang (04 -2630330) or visit www.britishcouncil.org.my.