Would, Could, Should: Mastering These Would Be Good

Shylu requested me to discuss three very important words in English:

  • Would – implies a willingness to do something (related to modal verb “will”)
  • Could – implies an ability to do something (related to modal verb “can”)
  • Should – implies an expectation to do something as required by law, custom, courtesy…

There may be lessons on these words in other locations but I couldn’t find any one location that was all-inclusive, so I hope to make this discussion serve as the “be-all, end-all” coverage of these words.

I will post this discussion in three editing sessions:

  • Session 1 = Would
  • Session 2 = Could
  • Session 3 = Should

so keep revisiting this discussion every few days until you read all three parts.

Useful Links

Would Conditional Tutorial, Future in the Past, Would Always

Could, Should 1, Should 2


The Four Main Uses of Would

  1. To create conditional verb forms to express hypothetical or unreal situations.
    (If ___were ___, ___would ___.)
  2. To serve as the past tense of the modal verb “will.”
  3. To indicate repetition in the past. (sometimes called “future in the past”)
  4. To phrase requests in a polite or tactful way.

I. Examples – Conditional Sentences Expressing Hypothetical
or Unreal Situations


  1. If I were you, I would tell her the truth.
  2. I don’t trust you in this matter. If our positions were reversed, would you trust me?
  3. If I were a rich man, I would use my wealth to train people to learn useful job skills so they could improve their quality of life.
  4. If I weren’t a LEWWWP teacher, then I wouldn’t be creating this discussion.

II. Examples – Past Tense of “Will”

  1. Today I will play tennis. Yesterday I would have played tennis but it rained.
  2. I would have visited you yesterday but I was sick.
  3. He said he would help me but he didn’t.

III. Examples – Repetition in the Past (Future in the Past)

  1. (Song lyrics) When I was young, I’d listen to the radio waiting for my favorite songs.
  2. When I was in middle school, I would make the honor role every six weeks.
  3. When she was working night shift, she would go to work every night at 8:00 pm.
  4. Last year I worked as a contractor. I would submit a time sheet every two weeks to get paid.

IV. Examples – Polite Requests

  1. Would you do me a favor? (You know they can but are they willing to.)
  2. Would you pass the salt (at the dinner table)?
  3. Would you please turn your radio volume down? It is hurting my ears.
  4. Would you give this present to your mom for me?

Self-Assessment Exercise for “Would”

IDENTIFY which use of “Would” applies (1, 2, 3, or 4) for each sentence:

  1. Would you ask our waitress to refill our water glasses, please?
  2. If World War IV were to start tomorrow, many Americans would be unable to cope with the hardships.
  3. During last month’s disaster, my family and I would have to walk down to the emergency supply center every day just to get bottled water to drink.
  4. He would not do it yesterday, and he won’t do it today either.
  5. I wouldn’t do that if I were you.
  6. My son wouldn’t have robbed that store. You must be mistaken.
  7. Would you have dinner with me tonight?
  8. When I was in college, my parents would come to visit me every summer vacation.


‘Could’ can be used to talk about the past, the present, or the future.

The Four Main Uses of Could

  1. To serve as the past tense of ‘can’.
  2. To make polite requests. You could also use ‘can’ but ‘could’ is more polite.
  3. To reply to requests However, using ‘could’ implies that we do not really want to do it. If you agree to respond to a request, it is better to say ‘can’.
  4. To talk about hypothetical possibility. In this usage, it is similar in meaning to ‘might’.

I. Examples – Past Tense of “Can”

  1. When I was living in Boston, I could walk to work.
  2. He phoned to say he couldn’t come.
  3. I could see him clearly but I couldn’t hear him due to the ambient noise.

II. Examples – To Make Polite Requests

  1. Could you help me, please?
  2. Could you lend me some money?
  3. Could I get a ride from you?
  4. Could I come with you?

III. Examples – To Reply to Request

  1. I could help you but only if it’s urgent. I’m really busy right now.
  2. I would (lend you money) if I could, but my wallet is empty. I have no cash.
  3. I could give you a lift as far south as Birmingham. Then I’m heading westward.
  4. Certainly you could come along, but I may be staying for several hours.

IV. Examples – To Talk about Hypothetical Possibilities

  1. It looks like it could rain later. You’d better take an umbrella just in case.
  2. He could be there by now.
  3. He just announced his engagement. I don’t think he could he be any happier!
  4. Who’s ringing the door bell? It could be Sarah. I’m expecting her to drop by.

Self-Assessment Exercise for “Could”

IDENTIFY which use of “Could” applies (1, 2, 3, or 4) for each sentence:

  1. Could you ask our waitress to refill our water glasses, please?
  2. I could do that for it but it would mean that I would miss my TV show.
  3. I couldn’t go to the ball game last night. It got canceled due to rain.
  4. Just think. If I had bought that lottery ticket, I could have been a millionaire!
  5. Could you tell me what time it is?
  6. Could it be that you and she are sisters?
  7. What did he say? I couldn’t hear him for all the applause going on.
  8. She could do it, but she won’t. You insulted her yesterday. Don’t you remember?


The good news is that “should” is the easiest of the trio (group of three)! If you ought to do something, or if you are supposed to do something, then you should do that something. Should is often paired with shall. Shall means you must do something (mandatory). Should means that someone feels, thinks, or believes that you ought to do something. It is not mandatory but simply strongly suggested or recommended or perhaps required by some rule, custom, or sense of propriety. So let’s delve into the world of should.

The Three Main Uses of Should

  1. To give advice or offer an opinion or recommendation. (ought to)
  2. To express an obligation. (to be supposed to)
  3. To express an expectation. (ought to, to be supposed to)

I. Examples Giving Advice or Opinion

  1. You really should start eating healthier food.
  2. If hes ill, he should see a doctor.
  3. We need legal advice. We should ask a lawyer.

II. Examples Expressing an Obligation

  1. I should be at work before 9:00 am.
  2. We should return the video before the video rental store closes.
  3. I really should go to the party. After all, I promised her I would come.

III. Examples Expressing an Expectation

  1. Susan left three hours ago. She should have arrived in New York by now.
  2. When the traffic light turns red, you should stop.
  3. When your father tells you to do something, you should obey him.

Extra Tidbits

There are no exercises for should since they are all very similar in meaning. I will point out a few interesting word usages instead.

  1. Sometimes you may hear someone say “woulda, coulda, shoulda”. You say this when someone doesn’t do something you asked them to and they give you a lot of excuses (a sob story) about why they couldn’t do it even though they wanted to so badly! When you doubt their sincerity in this matter, you might say “Woulda, coulda, shoulda! That is no excuse. I am greatly disappointed in you. You let me down.”
  2. Shall is very formal. This typically appears in legal or regulatory documents. For example, “A form shall be filled out and submitted within 60 days.” In the Christian Bible, you may have heard of the Ten Commandments from God. They all start with “Thou shalt…” which is Old English for “You shall…”About the only time we use shall is in the informal expression “Shall we?“. We use this with close friends when a friend has made a suggestion to do something (a plan) with you, and you cordially agree. Then you invite them to start the plan in motion by saying “Shall we (get started)?” Usually we make a sweeping gesture with our arm and open hand in the direction of intended movement. There is a famous song titled “Shall we dance?” Does anyone know what movie this song was in?


  3. So, “you shall” implies mandatory, and “you should” implies voluntary or optional.
  4. I’d = I _____ (would, could, or should)?
  5. Could you…? (can you or are you able to)
    Would you…? (can you or are you willing to)
    Should you…? (Could mean I think you should not and I am gently warning you.)

Students, would there be any value in my providing an audio recording of this lesson?

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