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Using “Would,” “Could,” and “Should” in Conditionals

Conditional statements are statements are sentences that express cause and effect. Kate has written a very good overview of conditional statements for this blog. As Kate says, there are four types of conditionals: the zero, first, second, and third conditionals (click here for a special grammar lesson on the third conditional). I’ll give you a brief review of these four conditionals. Then we’ll look at three modal verbs that are common in conditional statements: “could,” “should,” and “would.”

The four conditionals deal with four different kinds of cause and effect. The zero conditional deals with real cause and effect, things that really do happen. (“When the temperature drops below 0 Centigrade, water freezes.”) The first conditional deals with predictions of future cause and effect. (“If it’s sunny tomorrow, we’ll go to the beach.”) Second conditional statements mention causes and effects that are possible in theory, but are unlikely. (“If I magically grew wings, I would be able to fly.” Since it is in theory possible that magic exists, this is possible. Just not very likely at all.) The third conditional deals with causes and effects that were possible in the past, but did not actually happen. (“If Christopher Columbus had not sailed to America, someone else eventually would have.”)

Now, let’s look at the way “could,” “should,” and “would” are used in conditionals:

Could: “Could” is used to express possibility. Something that could happen is not necessarily something that must happen. Could does not express desire or opinion. It is simply used to state one or more things that are possible (even if they are unlikely) or were possible in the past (even if they didn’t happen).

First conditional example: If it rains enough tomorrow, it could flood; we should be prepared in case that happens.

Second conditional example: If I had lunch with my favorite actress, I could ask for her autograph, or I could ask her to make a movie with me.

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Third conditional example: If I had known you were going to the football game yesterday, I could have gone with you, because I had the day off from work.

Should: “Should” is used to express an opinion on the best course of action. When describing cause and effect, it is also used to suggest that one cause is very likely to happen in the future, or was very likely to happen in the past.

First conditional example: If it continues to rain this hard for another hour, it should start flooding. Start preparing for the flood right now.

Third conditional examples (suggestion; event that was likely in the past): If you were going to the football game yesterday, you should have invited me to go with you. You should have known I had the day off, because I emailed you to tell you I was free.

Would: “Would” is used to describe something that is unlikely or impossible, but definitely will happen if circumstances change in a specific way. In addition, it can describe a past event that didn’t happen, but only because the circumstances were not right.

Second conditional example: If you had lunch with your favorite actress, you would ask her for her autograph and you would ask her to make a movie with you. You wouldn’t feel like you needed to choose just one of those.

Third conditional example: If I had known you had the day off yesterday, I would have asked you to join me. I wanted you to join me, but I didn’t know you were free.

There are a few things you should note. “Could,” “should,” and “would” are not used in the zero conditional. This is because the zero conditional describes things that always happen. “Could,” “should” and “would” only deal with things that may or may not happen. Additionally, “should” is not generally used in the second conditional. The second conditional deals only with things that are unlikely. If a situation is unlikely, there is little reason to give someone advice on the best course of action. Finally, “would” cannot be used in the first conditional, which deals with predictions of likely and possible future events. In conditional statements, “would” only deals with the unlikely and the impossible.

“Could,” “should,” and “would” are also used in other kinds of sentences, not just conditionals. In future posts, I will look at other uses of these three words.


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17 Responses to Using “Would,” “Could,” and “Should” in Conditionals

  1. naresh March 13, 2018 at 10:32 am #

    gretting sir ..
    sir i m much confused in the use of could ..especially use of could in past ..would u plz clarify me with following sentences ..
    it could be more cleared !!
    it could be more clear
    and it could have been more clear .
    means its ok with the use of could to some extent i confuse generally .

    • David Recine
      David Recine March 13, 2018 at 11:27 am #

      Hi Naresh,

      Those are some great example sentences. Before we look at them, however, it’s important to understand that “cleared” and “clear” do not create different tenses in these sentences. Instead, “clear” is an adjective that means “easy to understand/see,” or “free of dirt or spots.” And “cleared” is an adjective that means “cleaned” or “emptied.” So “It could be more cleared” and “It could be more clear” have no difference in grammar, only a difference in meaning, because two different (but similarly spelled) adjectives are being used.

      There is a difference in tense, however, between “It could be more clear” and “It could have been more clear.” “It could have been be more clear.”

      “It could be more clear” is present tense, and means that something someone is looking at, talking about, or experiencing right now is not as clear as it could be. “It could have been more clear” means that a thing in the past had a chance of being more clear, but wasn’t.

      When using “could,” “would,” or “should” to talk about possibility, you add HAVE+(past participle verb).

      Does that explanation work for you, Naresh? Or could it be more clear? 😉 (Seriously, let me know if you still have doubts or questions.)

  2. Leigh Becher November 13, 2018 at 6:57 am #

    you have a mistake in the example of the use of would in third conditional.
    the example is:
    Third conditional example: If I knew you had the day off yesterday, I would have asked you to join me. I wanted you to join me, but I didn’t know you were free.
    the if clause should be:
    if i had known

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 19, 2018 at 5:09 pm #

      Hi Leigh,

      Yes, it looks like we made a mistake with our tenses here! Thanks for catching it and reaching out to us. The third conditional should be If + past perfect…

      I’ll send your comment to our blog writers so that they can take a look at it! Thanks again 🙂

      • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
        Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 28, 2018 at 9:51 am #

        Hi Leigh, I just wanted to let you know that we made this change 🙂 Thanks again for pointing it out to us!

  3. Farzana July 10, 2019 at 8:46 am #

    I want to talk about the possibility that can happen if we have any choice. for instance,
    my husband and I want to participant in an English Class but we have a little girl and no one can take care of her for that time. we say, if we could go together, it would be great! is it possible to use both this helping verbs in a conditional phrase together?

    • David Recine
      David Recine August 13, 2019 at 9:21 am #

      Absolutely! “If I could, I would” is actually a very common conditional grammar pattern in English. 🙂

  4. Effendi October 24, 2019 at 8:35 pm #

    Worth reading info.

  5. chandra mungur January 10, 2020 at 12:56 am #

    you could become sick if you wet yourself.Please tell me if this sentence is good.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 7, 2020 at 2:53 pm #

      Hi Chandra,

      I would probably say “You could become sick if you get wet.” “Wet yourself” is an idiomatic phrase that means to urinate on yourself, and I don’t think that’s what you are trying to say 🙂

  6. Maya May 17, 2020 at 1:05 pm #

    What if can / could was a request ? for example: If John ……. (phone), can you take the message?

  7. Hasib June 18, 2020 at 9:07 pm #

    It would not be at all strange if some obscene words and gestures should find expression…..There was considerable humour, very broad humour too, but nothing obscene.

    ▪Why did the writer use “should” before the word “find”? Why he didn’t write it like this: “It would not be at all strange if some obscene words and gestures found expression”?

  8. sara June 24, 2020 at 9:46 am #

    Can someone clarify one doubt for me? What kind of conditional sentence is below? And since modals like could, would, should cannot be used in the dependent clause while constructing a conditional sentence, why is it used in that way?

    If I could, then I would.

    If I can, then I will.

  9. lilips November 27, 2020 at 12:31 am #

    Hello, I would like to know if this sentence is correct.
    If her father hadn’t accpted her decision, she could have left the room she shared with others.
    I’ve Always learned at school that for the thirsd conditional, you have to use would.
    I’m a little bit confused.
    Thanks for your answer.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert January 15, 2021 at 12:41 pm #

      I agree that “would” is a better choice than “could” in this sentence.

  10. asim February 2, 2021 at 8:21 pm #

    Hey can you please clear my confusion regarding when you use could and when to use would

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 16, 2021 at 7:21 am #

      Hi Asim, that’s exactly what we cover in this blog post! Do you have a specific question about a case or example?

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