Would Not or Will Not: Determining Appropriate Usage

There are many different uses of the words will and would in English. As auxiliary verbs, we use these words to create tiny shifts in meaning within different contexts.

The difference between “will not” and “would not” can be very subtle since their usage depends on the many contexts in which will and would can be used as auxiliary verbs, in direct and indirect speech, in the conditional form, and in the negative form. In some cases, “will not” indicates a definite outcome, whereas “would not” is less definitive

While it is simply not possible to capture all the complexities in one article, read on for a crash course in understanding more about the difference between “will not” and “would not.”

Helping Verbs

Helping verbs, technically called auxiliary verbs, are verbs that rarely stand on their own but are used to contribute to the meaning of the central verb in a sentence (source).

Combining the main verb with an auxiliary verb creates subtle changes in the tense (or time) and mood.

The words “will” and “would” are both auxiliary verbs. So are can, could, might, should, shall, and other similar expressions. Some auxiliary verbs are actually verb phrases, such as “have to” and “used to.”

Consider these examples to understand how we use these words:

  • I might go to the movies tonight.

The word “might” indicates a tentative possibility rather than a definite outcome.

  • He could speak French when he was younger, but he has forgotten it now.

The word “could” indicates a past ability.

  • I used to cycle to work daily.

The phrase “used to” indicates a past action that took place frequently or habitually.

There are many uses and meanings for the various auxiliary verbs, and understanding how they all operate can be complicated and confusing. But let’s focus for now on the words “will” and “would.”

Will and Would as Auxiliary Verbs

In their most straightforward use as auxiliary verbs, the use of will and would is very similar, and you can often use the two words interchangeably. We use both terms to predict outcomes and to indicate intentions, promises, and requests.

However, the word “will” indicates more immediate and certain actions and outcomes. The expression “would” is used to indicate more indirect or uncertain outcomes and preferences (source). 

This distinction may sound rather vague, but these examples may help you to understand better:

  • I will go to the gym today.

The word “will” indicates a definite and immediate decision.

  • I will wash the dishes after dinner.

The word “will” indicates a firm promise and predicts a definite action.

  • Will you sit down, please?

The word “will” indicates a strong request.

  • I would prefer soup rather than salad for lunch.

The word “would” indicates a preference.

  • Would you care to go for coffee tomorrow?

The word “would” indicates an invitation.

  • Would you be able to help me with my homework this evening?

The word “would” indicates a polite request.

Note that the word “will” is often abbreviated to “’ll,” for example:

  • I’ll take the dog for a walk this morning.

The abbreviated I’ll” stands for “I will” and indicates a promise with a definite outcome.

Image by Nick Morrison via Unsplash

Direct and Indirect Speech

The words “will” and “would” are also used to indicate sentences in direct or indirect speech. Direct speech quotes a person in his or her own words, using quotation marks or inverted commas (“ ”). For example:

  • Mark says, “I am really hungry this morning.”
  • Mark said, “I am really hungry this morning.”

The part of the sentence between the quotation marks shows precisely what Mark said. Note that his speech remains in the present tense, whether we use the word says or said.

Indirect speech reports what the person has said, removing quotation marks and using the word that

Pronouns change to match the person who is speaking. The tense changes to match the tense of the reporting verb, for example, says or said (source). Consider these examples:

  • Mark says that he is really hungry this morning.
  • Mark said that he was really hungry this morning. 

The word “that” indicates indirect speech. The tense is changed to match the tense of the word “says” or “said.” The pronoun “I,” which Mark uses to refer to himself, is changed to “he.”

Using Will and Would in Direct and Indirect Speech

When someone uses the word “will” in direct speech, it is often changed to “would” when the sentence converts to indirect speech. This shift is because, in this particular context, “would” is the past tense of “will.” Consider these examples:

  • Delia says, “I’ll take the children to school.”
  • Delia said, “I’ll take the children to school.”

Remember that the word “I’ll” is an abbreviated form of “I will.” Both of these sentences are in direct speech, indicated by the quotation marks (“ ”). The first sentence uses “says” to indicate the present tense. The second sentence uses “said” to indicate past tense.

Here, these sentences use indirect speech, indicated by the word “that”:

  • Delia says that she will take the children to school.
  • Delia said that she would take the children to school.

In the first sentence, the word “says” indicates the present tense and is matched by the word “will.” In the second sentence, the word “said” indicates the past tense, and is matched by the word “would.”

To learn more about the complexities of past and present tense, please read, “There Were or There Was: Differences in Context and Use.”

The Conditional Form

Another usage of will and would is in the conditional form. As the name suggests, the conditional form tells you the outcome of a particular condition (source).

The condition is often indicated by the word “if.” Consider these examples:

  • If she eats her vegetables, she can have chocolate cake for dessert.
  • If you lie in the sun, you will get a sunburn.

Note that the first phrase beginning with “if” indicates the condition. The second phrase indicates the outcome and contains an auxiliary verb — the words “can” and “will” in these examples.

Will in the Conditional Form

When we use the word “will” in the conditional form, it indicates a strong prediction or a likely outcome of the condition. When we use “will” in the conditional sense, we write the conditional phrase in the simple present tense, and the outcome phrase is in the future tense (source). 

Here is an example:

  • If you fall off your chair, you will hurt yourself.
  • If he is late for class, the teacher will be angry.
  • If I eat shellfish, I will have an allergic reaction.

Here, you can see that the outcome in the second part of the sentence, containing the word “will,” is a very likely result of the condition in the first phrase.

Would in the Conditional Form

In the conditional, the word “would” is used to indicate outcomes that are less likely or even imaginary (source). For example:

  • If I were an astronaut, I would fly to the moon.
  • If I had a million dollars, I would travel the world.

Above, you can see that the condition is imaginary or unlikely, so the outcome is also questionable. Note that the conditional phrase is written in the simple past tense. Therefore, in the outcome phrase, “would” is used as the past tense of “will.”

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The Negative Form

None of the example sentences we have discussed so far include the word “not.” This is because you can only understand the differences between “will not” and “would not” once you have grasped the differences between “will” and “would.”

In English, the negative form is one of the easiest grammatical structures to understand. The most common way to form the negative is by using the word “not.” When there is only one verb in the sentence, we usually add “do not” in front of the verb. For example:

  • I eat peanuts. → I do not eat peanuts.

Other words can also indicate a negative, including never, rarely, hardly ever, and so on. For example:

  • Barney goes to school. → Barney never goes to school.

When we have an auxiliary verb in the original sentence, we simply add the word “not” between the auxiliary and main verbs to make the sentence negative (source). For example: 

  • I will go to work. → I will not go to work.
  • He would like to come for dinner. → He would not like to come for dinner.

As you can see, this means that when we convert sentences that use the auxiliary verbs “will” and “would” to the negative form, we simply add the word “not” after “will” or “would” and before the main verb.

Using Will Not and Would Not in Different Contexts

You can apply the negative form to any of the other grammar structures we have discussed above. Sentences using auxiliary verbs, as well as those in direct or indirect speech or the conditional, can all be converted to the negative form. 

This means that where we have used “will” or “would,” we can often substitute them for “will not” or “would not.”

Look at these examples that we have used previously:

Auxiliary Verb

OriginalNegative
I will wash the dishes after dinner.I will not wash the dishes after dinner.
The word “will” indicates a firm promise and predicts a definite action.The phrase “will not” indicates a firm refusal.
I would prefer soup to salad for lunch.I would not prefer soup to salad for lunch.
The word “would” indicates a preference.The phrase “would not” indicates a preference.

Direct Speech

OriginalNegative
Delia says, “I’ll take the children to school.”Delia says, “I will not take the children to school.”
Delia said, “I’ll take the children to school.”Delia said, “I will not take the children to school.”
The abbreviation “I’ll” is short for “I will,” which indicates a firm promise.Note that in the negative, the abbreviation “I’ll” is returned to its original form, “I will,” so that the word “not” can be inserted in front of the word “will.”

Indirect Speech

OriginalNegative
Delia says that she will take the children to school.Delia says that she will not take the children to school.
Delia said that she would take the children to school.Delia said that she would not take the children to school.
Remember that “would” is the past tense of “will,” and is used to match the tense of the reporting verb said.The phrasewould not” becomes the past tense of “will not.”

Conditional

OriginalNegative
If I eat shellfish, I will have an allergic reaction.If I eat shellfish, I will not have an allergic reaction.
The word “will” indicates a likely outcome.The phrase “will not” indicates an extremely unlikely outcome.
If I were an astronaut, I would fly to the moon.If I were an astronaut, I would not fly to the moon.
The word “would” indicates an imaginary or unlikely outcome.The phrase “would not” negates an imaginary outcome.

You can see that, in the examples above, the phrases “will not” and “would not” simply convert the sentences to the negative form.

Final Thoughts

The words “will” and “would” are very widely used in English, and their many uses can make it confusing to work out what the correct form should be for your sentence. 

Try to work out whether you are writing a sentence in direct or indirect speech, the conditional, or merely using auxiliary verbs. Then, apply the rules of grammar you have learned.

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