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Updated April 13, 2014 

 

Questions that Contain the Word, "Would"

INTRODUCTION

There are times when a native English speaker knows when it is suitable to "break the grammatical rules" (or, "bend the rules") that I will explain on this page. But for you, preparing for the IELTS test, I suggest you try to follow grammatical rules as if they were mathematical rules.

For the majority of readers of this website (i.e., those who will get from Band 4.5 to Band 7.5 for Speaking), I think you can consider these notes complete enough to help you avoid the main mistakes that people make when speaking "would" Part 2 topics.

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Point 1: The verbs "can" and "must"

The two words "can" and "must" should only be used for the present tense. This is shown in the table below. For other tenses, use the words shown in the table.

  Past tense  Present tense Future tense
 can  could = was able  to  can = be able to  will be able to
 must  had to  must = have to  will have to

It is incorrect to say, "When (or, after) I go to Canada I can practice more English". The correct sentence is, "When (or, after) I go to Canada I'll be able to practice more English."

Similarly, it is incorrect to say, "When (or, after) I arrive in Australia the first thing I must do is find a place to live." The correct sentence is, "When (or, after) I arrive in Australia the first thing I'll have to do is find a place to live."

For the present tense, you can choose to use either "can" or "be able to". You can also choose either "must" or "have to".

For example:

"I can say 'Hello' in six different languages" = "I'm able to say 'Hello' in six different languages".

And, "I must go now" = "I have to go now."

Most English speakers choose to use, "can" most of the time simply because it's shorter and easier to say than, "be able to". "Must" and "have to" are used about equally.

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Point 2: Three Different "if" Sentences

2a) The Real Future 'If'

The formula for the 'Real Future If' sentence is:

  If + present tense + will + (infinitive or base) verb

Of course, the future has not arrived yet, so it is not yet real but it will be, or might be real in the future.

Look at this example:

A: "How will you go to work tomorrow?"

B: "That depends on the weather. If it rains, I'll take the bus. But if it's sunny, I'll walk to work."

Of course, "rains" and "it's" (= "it is") are present tense.

Note:

In the formula above, the word "will" can be replaced by "might" (= "may"), to communicate the idea that you are not exactly sure what you will do. For example:

"If it rains, I might take the bus. But if it's sunny, I might walk to work."

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2b) The Present Unreal 'If'

"Unreal" means we are speaking hypothetically (假设的话, 虚拟式).

The formula for the 'Present Unreal If' sentence is:

  If + past tense + would + (infinitive or base) verb

Here, 'unreal' means the speaker is talking about a different present situation than the real present situation that exists now. This different present situation is therefore, 'unreal' because it is not the real present situation, it's impossible.

Look at this example:

The way to make this sentence is to take the key verb from the first sentence, "don't have", change it to the opposite, "have" and then use the past tense of that verb, "had". The reason why the past tense is used is connected to the evolution of English and is too complex to explain here. But you can think that "have money" needs to happen before or earlier than, "buy car". In this way, the "have" verb is used in the past tense for this grammatical structure.

Another example:

"I live far from my office so I don't walk to work." (That's the real present situation.)

"If I didn't live far from my office, I would walk to work." (Here the speaker talks about a different present situation, an unreal present situation. You can think of the word "would" as behaving the same way that the verb "will" behaves, but the meaning is different.)

Notes:

i) In the formula above, the word "would" can be replaced by "might" (= "may"), to communicate the idea that you are not exactly sure what you would do. For example:

"If I had enough money, I might buy a car."

I suggest avoiding the use of "may" in this structure, although it is not wrong. Overusing "may", when it is used to mean the same as "might", makes your speech sound pretentious.

ii) I also suggest avoiding the use of "should" to replace "would" that's rather old-fashioned English and now sounds too formal. Only use "should" in sentences where your meaning is, "the best thing to do" or, "the correct thing to do". For example, "You should go to bed early if you want to get up to catch the 5 AM train tomorrow morning." Or, "You should be kind to your grandmother because she gave you a lot of love when you were a child."

iii) In the formula above, the word "would" can also be replaced by "could". This is referring to ability to do something.

For example:

"If I didn't live far from my office, I could walk to work." = "If I didn't live far from my office, I would be able to walk to work."

iv) In the formula above, if the past tense verb is the "be" verb, we usually use "were" following all of the words, "I", "you", "he", "she", "it", "we", "you" (plural) and "they". However, in informal everyday conversation, English speakers (including educated people) sometimes use "was" instead of "were" after the words "I" or "he", "she" or "it" and it is usually not considered to be wrong in informal language. For example:

A: Would you give money to a beggar on the street?

B: I might, if I thought he was genuine. (The words, "... if I thought he were genuine" sounds a little strange or pedantic to the ears of most native English speakers.)

In this example, "Would you give money to a beggar on the street?" really means, "Would you give money to a beggar on the street, if you saw one?" or, "Would you give money to a beggar on the street, if you he asked you for money?" Although not every "Would" question includes an "if" statement, this statement is understood or implied in the question.

Another example:

"If I was the leader of this country, I would give everybody three-day weekends." = "If I were the leader of this country, I would give everybody three-day weekends." (Both of these sound natural in everyday speech.)

On the other hand, you should use, "were" in most written English, with the possible exception of informal letters or emails, such as a letter to a friend.

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2c) The Past Unreal 'If'

The formula for the 'Past Unreal If' sentence is:

  If + past perfect tense + would have + past participle

 中文             If + 过去完成时 + would have + 过去分词

Of course it is impossible to change the past situation so any talk about a different past situation is 'unreal'. (It is also impossible to change the present situation changing the present situation creates a different, new present situation.)

Example:

"I lived near my primary school so I didn't take the bus or train to school." (That's the real past situation.)

"If I had lived far from my school, I would have taken the bus or the train to school."

You need to know how to make the past perfect tense. The formula for the past perfect tense is "past tense of the 'have' verb, i.e., "had" + the past participle.

The past participle is the third word you learn when you learn the three forms of irregular verbs, such as "eat, ate, eaten". For regular verbs, the past participle has the same form as the past tense, e.g., "walk, walked, walked".

Note:

In the formula above, the word "would" can be replaced by "might" (= "may"), to communicate the idea that you are not exactly sure what you would have done. For example:

"If I had lived far from my school, I might have taken the bus to school, or I might have taken the train."

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Point 3: Understand the use of, and the meaning of "would like"

Some people at the Band 4.5 to 5.5 level make a mistake here. Usually, if someone asks you "What would you do?" then don't begin your answer with the words, "I would like to ...". Instead, say "I would + verb" where 'verb' is not, "like". (You can use a "would like" sentence as your second sentence, but not the first, in answer to that question.)

For example:

A: What would you do if this building was (or "were") on fire?

B: I would run out onto the street. (CORRECT)

B: I would like to run out onto the street. (INCORRECT)

 

However, there are (rather rare) situations where it is suitable to begin with, "I would like to ...". In this case, your meaning is, "I would have the desire to do X if I were in this situation, but I wouldn't do it, for some reason."

Example 1:

A: What would you do if you won the lottery?

B: Well, I'd like to give half the money to charity, but I wouldn't be able to do that because I'm sure my wife would only allow me to give away about 10% of it.

 

Example 2:

A: What would you do if this building was (or "were") on fire?

B: Well, I'd like to check the other rooms to see that everyone was safe, but I probably wouldn't do that if the fire was really big because I would need to look after my own safety first.

 

Example 3:

A: Can you show me how to solve this maths question?

B: Sorry, I'd like to help you but I have to go to class now. I'll show you how to do it later.

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Point 4: There are two different (but related) meanings for, "would like"

 

a) "would like" = "would be happy" = "would be pleased" [or, less commonly, "would want" or, "would have the desire"].

This is speaking hypothetically.

The words, "I'd like to ..." mean (or imply), "I would be happy to ... if I could". All of these are examples of the Present Unreal 'If'  grammatical structure, i.e., "If + past tense + would..." The "if" statement is understood or implied it is often not necessary to say the "if" part.

Do you remember this example above? "If I didn't live far from my office, I would walk to work." As stated above, the word "would" here behaves similarly to the way "will" behaves but it is different in meaning.

It is also (grammatically) possible to say, "I would like to walk to work" instead of, "I would walk to work". In this case, "would like to" means, "it would please me" it's expressing your feeling, not specifically answering, "What would you do?". However, most English speakers would not say that because, as shown above, "would like to" is sometimes used in a statement that means, "I would like to do that but, in fact, I wouldn't do it ... ".

To sum up: Instead of talking about a desire that one would have in a certain situation, English speakers more often talk about what they would, in fact, do, not what they would simply "desire to do".

(I'm sorry if this is too abstract and difficult to understand. Treat it as if you were studying mathematics.)

b) "I would like" = a more polite way to say, "I want".

This is not speaking hypothetically. It is an expression of something real, now.

Example:

(Mr. B knocks on the door of a company office. Miss A opens the door.)

Miss A: Good morning. May I help you?

Mr. B: Yes, I'd like to speak to the manager.

Here, "I'd like to speak to the manager" = "I want to speak to the manager".

To use the word "want" in this situation sounds a little too direct, a little too demanding or even aggressive. By using "I'd like to", Mr. B sounds more genteel or 'polite'.

Why is this more polite? Because the meaning is something like this: "I'd like to speak to the manager, if I may." This language sounds very humble, almost begging, the opposite of the very direct, "I want" humble speech is considered to be 'polite' speech in most cultures of the world.

To Recap:

Since "I'd like to speak to the manager" = "I want to speak to the manager", and since the words "I want" is present tense, we see that the statement, "I'd like to speak to the manager" is not hypothetical but is, in fact, real.

When speaking about real things, use the present tense. (But don't be confused by the technical fact that most base forms of verbs, as expressed in the infinitive form, "to + base verb", are the same as the present tense of those verbs.)

A native English speaker can sometimes mix the two grammars but for you, stay with the grammar on one side - don't mix it.

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"Perfect" or "Ideal" things

When saying that something would be perfect or ideal, use the "Unreal" grammar. (Perfection is impossible.)

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Common Errors

1. An error made by some people who are below Band 5.5 for Speaking is to answer a "would" question using the word, "will". The two words are different in meaning. If you get a "would" question, answer using the word "would", not "will".

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2. An error made by some people at the Band 5.5 to 6.5 level is to make a grammatical error when attempting to make an "if" sentence. The examiner will (or should) give you some grammar points for trying to make the sentence but not full points. (Even with a mistake, you should get more points than if you didn't try at all to make the sentence.)

Examples

wrong: "If I had I car, I will ..." That should be, "If I had a car, I would ..."

wrong: "If I buy I car, I would ..." That should be, "If I buy a car, I will ..."

It's not too hard to memorize the formula for the correct grammar here and, if you are serious about improving your speaking ability, it's not too hard to practice making sentences using this grammar by using Side by Side 4.

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3. The Correct Usage of the word, "Want"

One error that many students make is to use the word, "want" inappropriately. They think that "would like to + verb" and "want to + verb" are the same but this is not always true, although it is true sometimes. There are subtle differences between the meaning and usage of the two expressions.

When to use "want"

Use "want" when you are talking about a true plan or goal or, it's a strong desire, something that you think about, or dream about.

An example of something that is a strong desire but is not a real plan or goal is this: Let's say there is an 18-year-old guy or girl who really wants to be a pop singer. They love pop music. This person practices singing and even writes songs. He or she dreams of being a pop singer and thinks about it a lot. This person could then correctly say, "I (really) want to be a pop singer but I don't think I'll ever do that kind of work because my Dad thinks I'm not good enough. So I'm studying business and that's probably what I'll do for work in the future." She uses "want" to accurately express her true feelings but she treats it almost as a fantasy, or just a dream, like marrying a Hollywood movie star.

What about this situation? A young guy saw a picture of an XYZ sports car in a car magazine, although he rarely looks at car magazines. He thought, "Wow! That's a great car. It would be nice to have a car like that." But he is busy and doesn't think about cars very much. Then one day a friend asks him, "What kind of car would you buy if you had enough money to choose any car in the world?"

In this situation, the first guy remembers the car he saw in the magazine and he correctly answers, "I'd like to have an XYZ sports car," or, "I'd buy a an XYZ sports car." It would not be suitable for him to say, "I want to have an XYZ sports car," or, "I want to buy a an XYZ sports car" because his desire is not a strong desire. His feelings are more, "It would please me if I had an XYZ sports car" and that's about as far as his desire extends.

So, the major difference in usage here between "want" and "would like" is a difference of degree - it depends on how much you desire something.

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An example of "I want" referring to a goal or plan is this: "I'm hungry. I want to eat something." This goal, of satisfying your hunger, is a very short-term goal, something you hope to achieve in a few minutes.

Another example of "want" referring to a plan or goal, is, of course, "I want to get a good score in the IELTS test." That's honest and straight-forward. There's nothing wrong with using "want" to express this, but other people don't like to hear someone use the words, "I want" too much - it sounds overly self-centred or selfish. You could equally as correctly say, "I'd like to get a good score in the IELTS test." That sounds more humble and less assertive than, "I want". However, when someone is aiming to reach a rather difficult goal such as 6.5 or 7.0 in the IELTS test, it's necessary to be self-assertive in order to succeed, so "I want" is very appropriate.

On the other hand, when you want something from someone, i.e., you want them to give you something, it sounds rather aggressive to say, "I want". In the example (above) of the guy who wanted to speak to the manager, he wants the receptionist to allow him to see the manager; he wants her to give him permission to see the manager. He needs to use the polite form of "want" in this situation.

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Some Part 2 Examples of "would like"

Firstly, I believe it is rare to see wording such as "Describe a vehicle you want to buy". I think in almost all cases of Part 2 questions like that, the words "would like" are used, allowing you to choose whether to use the words, "I want" or not, depending on your strength of desire. So, the vehicle topic almost certainly is written as, "Describe a vehicle you would like to buy (or have)."

Below are two or three example answers (not the full answers) for that Part 2 topic, a vehicle.

Let's say you are at university in your home country and still have many months before you graduate. You walk quite a lot to your university classes and when you go shopping etc. You have plans to buy a good-quality bicycle and you have been to a few bicycle shops to check out what's for sale. In your case, it is very suitable to use "I want to to buy a bicycle". To emphasize that it is a goal or plan, you should mention things that prove that it is a real goal or plan, such as what you have done about this desire.

Maybe you are really interested in cars and owning a certain car one day is one of your major goals in life. In this case, using "I want" is very suitable.

On the other hand, if the type of vehicle you have is not an important consideration for you, or a high priority, then it is much more suitable for you to simply use the words (and the grammar connected to it), "I'd like .... " You get more grammar points if you can manage the grammar for this, compared to using the grammar for the real, "I want" because the grammar is more complex.

If you talk about something that is fantasy, (which sometimes is a valid choice for this type of question), such as a flying car, then it sounds a little unsuitable to say, "I want to own a flying car" when they don't exist yet. (Actually, they do, but let's think ten years ago.) In this case, it is almost a must for the speaker to use, "I'd like to" instead of, "I want to".

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For the Part 2 topic, "A Foreign Language", I am not confident yet about what the exact wording is. (As at July 19, 2013). The wording might be,

a) "Describe a foreign language you would like to learn"

    or it might be,

b) "Describe a foreign language you would learn, if you had the chance," or, "Describe a foreign language you would learn, if you had to choose." Or something like those two.

[Most likely, it is a).]

If it is a), then the vast majority of IELTS candidates should just use, "I'd like to learn ..." because the majority of candidates don't have plans to learn another language after English - their desire to learn another language is not strong because of time constraints, even if they like languages in general.

If it is b), you should avoid using "I'd like" or "I want", especially in the first sentence. That is because the main focus of the question is on what you would actually do, and much less on the question of how much you want to do it. The word, "like" is not used in the question!

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