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Would You Like to Learn About Modal Auxiliaries?

everyday grammar

Imagine you are watching an action movie, such as Mission: Impossible. You hear the following exchange:

"Would you like to watch a movie?"

"Oh. No, thank you."

"Would you consider the cinema of the Caribbean?"

You might have noticed that one of the speakers uses the word would not once, but two times.

Have you ever wondered about the word would? Would you like to know more about how native English speakers use it to show different meanings?

Today on Everyday Grammar, we will explore a difficult area in English grammar: modal auxiliaries. By the end of this report, you will understand how modal auxiliaries are used in American English. You will also learn about three uses of the word would.

What are modal auxiliaries?

Language experts say English has two main groups of words: form classes and structure classes.

Form classes are words such as nouns, adjectives, and verbs that give basic meaning. The form classes are open; in other words, they often change as speakers use new or different words.

The term structure classes means a small group of words that explain the grammatical relationships of words from the form classes.

Structure class words are generally closed. In other words, structure class words, such as prepositions and, you guessed it, modal auxiliaries, usually do not change.

This definition comes from Martha Kolln, an expert on English grammar. She notes that native English speakers do not often think about structure class words, despite their importance.

Mastering structure class words - such as modal auxiliaries – is one of the difficult parts about learning English.

We will not test you on the differences between structure and form classes. We just want you to know that there are the two main classes of words, and that knowing words from both classes is important.

Now, let's take a look at one difficult word from the structure class: the modal auxiliary would.

What do modal auxiliaries do?

Modal auxiliaries change the meaning of the verb next to them. They show a speaker's opinion. They can express a possibility or necessity.

Modals such as would have different meanings depending on their context. We have discussed modals in other Everyday Grammar programs, which you can find on our website,

#1 To express a wish about a present condition or a future happening

One common meaning of would is to show a wish about a present condition or a future event.

Consider the statement, "I wish it would stop snowing."

Here, the speaker expresses a wish about the weather. The speaker means that it is currently snowing; would expresses the speaker's wish that the weather change.

The meaning of this statement is almost the same as "I hope it stops snowing."

#2 To express a past or unrealized possibility

A second common meaning of would is to express a past or unrealized possibility. This past or unrealized possibility did not come true.

Consider the sentence, "I would have helped you, but I could not get off from work."

In this statement, the speaker shows regret about not being able to help. The speaker is saying that he might have been able to help, if he was not required to work.

Here is an example from American popular culture. Consider these lines from the 1960 film Elmer Gantry.

"Jesus would have made the best little All-American quarterback in the history of football. Jesus was a real fighter - the best little scrapper, pound for pound, you ever saw. And why, gentlemen? Love, gentlemen. Jesus had love in both fists! "

In this example, the speaker is talking about a past or unrealized possibility. Jesus was a religious leader. He never played American football. In fact, he lived long before American football was invented.

Speakers do not always use would to show a past possibility. They might use would to show an unrealized possibility in the present tense.

Consider this example:

"I would help you if I could."

Here the speaker is showing that she is unable to help.

Whether the speaker is being truthful about her ability to help is a different question!

#3 For polite requests:

One of the most common meanings of the word would is this: to make a polite request.

This structure is useful in almost any situation – at work, school, a restaurant, and so on.

Imagine you are at school and you cannot understand a question in mathematics class. You could ask a student:

"Would you help me with this math problem?"

Using would in this way is considered polite in American culture.

You could ask the same question, or give a direct order, by saying "Will you help me with this?" or "Help me with this."

Although such sentences are grammatically correct, they are not considered polite in American culture.

What about the film?

Think back to the exchange you heard at the beginning of this report:

"Would you like to watch a movie?"

"Oh. No, thank you."

"Would you consider the cinema of the Caribbean?"

We have examined three basic meanings of the word would today. Can you tell which way the speaker used the word would? Do you think would has one or two meanings in the audio?

Write us in the Comments Section of our website.

What can you do?

The word would has many other meanings. The next time you are watching an American film or listening to American music, try to study how speakers use would. Are they using it to express one of the meanings we described today, or do they mean something else?

Understanding modal auxiliaries is a difficult, but necessary skill if you would like to improve your knowledge of American English.

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section. ______________________________________________________________

Words in This Story

modal auxiliary – n. grammar a verb (such as can, could, shall, should, ought to, will, or would) that is usually used with another verb to express ideas such as possibility, necessity, and permission

form class – n. large, open classes of words that provide the lexical content of the language

structure class – n. small, closed classes of words that explain the grammatical relationships of the form classes.

master - v. to learn (something) completely; to get the knowledge and skill that allows you to do, use, or understand (something) very well

context – n. the situation in which something happens; the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens

unrealized – adj. not effected, accomplished, or fulfilled (not realized)

polite – adj. socially correct or proper

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