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Thoughts on the Power of Would

The modal verbs cause learners lots of problems due to the over complex analysis of the verbs (they all, except for should and must, have one central meaning), and the lack of practice. Conditionals seem to especially problematic and this is in part due to the early association of ‘past’ and certain ‘tenses’. We spend three years (or so) associating the ‘simple past’ with ‘past time’ and then present them with a ‘rule’ for the second conditional ‘the form is past but the meaning is not’ and are surprised when they have problems with that.

What we need is much earlier exposure to the concepts of formal language, and unreal and imaginary situations through the power of would.

As soon as possible we should contrast ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ with ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ and explain (in the first language) that we are using would to be more polite and distant – being less direct. ‘Would you like to do X, Y and Z?’ should be practiced as much as possible; as well as ‘What would you like to do at the weekend (after the lesson etc.)? These should be presented as formulaic chunks as they are formulaic chunks.


From here we should move on to considering unreal situations (‘What would you if X?’) but without the ‘if’ or the past verbs. For example we could ask: ‘Imagine: You are outside. It starts snowing heavily. What would you do?’. The learners would need to reply: ‘I would…’.

Our aim is to connect would with polite language and unreal situations (but without the unreal use of ‘past’ verb forms). An early focus on this will be enormously beneficial when it comes to the our later focus on the fuller conditional forms.