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Would & Would have

State preference, request, habit or excuse



Preference / Request—would you?


Would you rather  X than Y?  or Would you rather X or Y? expresses preference. A statement with I would rather you expresses an indirect (polite) request for another person to perform a particular action.

I would rather have my breakfast outside than inside.

We would rather eat fish tonight than meat.

I would rather smoke indoors than outdoors.

I would rather you smoke outdoors than indoors.

I would rather you not smoke here.

We would rather have our coffee before than after our dessert.


Would you or Would you mind (if) requests someone's preference or action on something. A question mark follows a question in which one expects a response, but a period follows a request (no response). 

Would you like to have breakfast outside? (Express preference)

Would you sit outside please. (Make a request.)

Would you suggest some wine to go with our fish dish? (Request a favor.)

Would you suggest some wine to go with our fish dish. (Request an expected task.)

Would you mind if I smoke inside? (Give the other person the option to say "no".)

Would you mind not smoking in here. (Make a polite command/request)

Would you not do that please. (Make a polite command/request)

Would you please bring me some coffee. (Make a polite command/request)

Bring me some coffee, would you please?


Also see Rather than.

See Grammar Notes for Traditional v. Linguistic Descriptions and Punctuation of Requests







Preference vs. Request




Preference / Request


Would you rather  X than Y?  or   Would you rather X or Y? is used to state a preference.

I would rather have my breakfast outside than inside.

We would rather eat fish tonight than meat.

I would rather smoke indoors than outdoors.


Would you or Would you mind (if) is used to inquire about someone's preference.

Would you like having breakfast outside? (Also: Would you like to have…)

Would you suggest some wine to go with our fish dish?

Would you mind if I smoke inside?


Also see Rather than.








Past Habit

cigarette butt



Past Activity vs. Habit


The past tense is used to talk about a past activity or habit.

I spent hours smoking.

I hid my smoking habit.


Would or used to is used to talk about a discontinued habit. 

I would spend hours smoking. (past routine, habit)

I used to spend hours smoking. (discontinued habit)

I would hide my smoking habit whenever somebody asked.

I used to smoke. / I would smoke


See Would / Used to  (would vs. used to) or Used to / Be used to.







Would have / Would rather have

Excuse vs. Preference




Would have / Would rather have


Would have expresses a hypothetical situation. A clause may be added with but to give a reason or an excuse. "Conditional Perfect"

I would have stopped smoking, but it was too difficult.  (action did not happen)
I was going to stop smoking, but it was too difficult.

I would have called, but my phone wasn't working. (action did not happen)
I was going to call , but my phone wasn't working.


Would rather have is used for stating a past preference that was not satisfied or met.  A clause with but  may be added for emphasis.

I would rather have found an easy way out, but I didn't.

I would rather have been a non-smoker, but I wasn't.






Common Mistakes

Errors and Solutions



Error and Solution


Do you would like another cup of coffee? 

(auxiliary "do" used with "would".)

I rather have some tea.

(missing auxiliary "would".)

I will like / I'll like a cookie too.  I'll have a cookie too.

(prediction or request?)


Would you like another cup of coffee? (Remove do.)

Do you like coffee? (Expresses preference in general.)

I'd rather have / I would rather have some tea.  (Add would.)

I would like a cookie too.  (Usingwould is more polite than using will.)






► Show Grammar Notes? ▼ Hide Grammar Notes

Grammar Notes

Traditional and Linguistic Descriptions
Punctuation of Requests



Traditional and Linguistic Descriptions


Azar and Hagen

  • Conditional (416, 421)  The condition (after "if") is untrue / unlikely to happen, or contrary to fact.
    • If I had enough time, I would watch TV.   (present / future)
    • If I had had enought time, I would have watched TV. (past)
  • Desired result (419)
    • If I had studied, I would have gotten a better grade.  (desired result)
    • I would have studied if I'd known the test was going to be so hard.
  • Polite request (159-60)
    • Would you pass the salt please?
    • I would like some salt please.
  • Repeated action in past (200)
    • When I was a child, my father would read to me each night. (routine)
    • As a child, I would bite my nails. (habit)
  • Reported speech (261)
    • She said that we would leave the next day.
    • He thought that he would be famous one day.
  • With Wish (436)  The speaker want something to happen or someone else to to do something in the future.
    • I wish it would rain. (dissatisfaction or longing)
    • I wish you would hurry up a little.  (request)

Swan  [633]

  • Would is the past form of will — softer, less definite (distancing?)
  • Indirect speech — willwould in a subord. clause (past)
  • Future in past narration — As time passed, we would learn that…
  • Interpersonal use  — polite requests, "softer form of will"
  • Past willingness and refusals. 
    • She would call, but wouldn't come over.  (be willing to do this not that)
    • She wouldn't talk to me in person.  (refusal, multiple events)

Huddleston and Pullum's The Cambridge Grammar of English the English Language

Past time would expresses:  [3 §9.8.1]

  • volition  (desire, choice)  often as negative "refusal"
    • Even though I had experience, they wouldn't let me drive. (negative)
    • I would have her as my wife!   (positive form is no longer in use)
  • propensity  Every weekend, I would beg for the car keys.  (inclination)
  • futurity in past narratives  As my finances improved, I would eventually be able to buy a car.

The preterite form would occurs in the following constructions:

  • in remote (unreal or hypothetical) conditionals [3 §6.1]
    • She would come along if you asked her.
  • in backshifted clauses (adjusting to time-frame of main clause) [3 §6.2]
    • She said [that she would come with us].
  • in non-imperative directives [10 §9.6] when the addressee is not an intimate and politeness is required. 
    • Open the door please. (direct)
    • Would you open the door please. (polite)
    • Would you like to open the door. (indirect / willingness)
    • Would you mind opening the door. (indirect / convenience)





Punctuating Requests — Question Mark vs. Period


Swan in Practical English Usage includes punctuation with examples of will/would and can/could but does not go into detail when to use a period or question mark.

217 Future (7) will and shall:

Will you get me a newspaper when you're out?

Will you be quiet, please!

Make me a cup of coffee, will you?


124 can and could (4):

Can you put the children to bed?

Could you lend me five pounds until tomorrow?

Do you think you could help me for a few minutes?

If you haven't got anything to do you could sort out your photos. (Note the absence of a comma as well.)

(Swan 124, 217)


Indirect Speech Acts

Peer-to-peer, not closely intimate. The following appears in the text's examples:

Can/Could you open the window.  [period]

Will/Would you you open the window. [period]

Would you be good enough… [period]

Would you mind… (please)?  [question mark]

Would you like to… (please)? [question mark]

I wonder if I might trouble you… (please)? [question mark]

Open the window, will you? [question mark]

(Huddleston 863, 930)


A Courtesy Question.

A request courteously disguised as a question does not require a question mark.

Would you respond by Jan 1.

Will you please sit down.

(Chicago Manual of Style 6.76)


The Gregg Reference Manual by Sabin states the circumstances under which the request is made, and he considers (1) politeness; (2) expectation of an answer; (3) peer-to-peer vs. subordinate; (4) required vs not required tasks.

[I have summarized the points below.]

a. Use a period if you expect your reader [listener] to respond by acting rather than giving you a yes-or-no answer.

Will you please call us at once if we can be of further help.

b. Use a question mark if you are asking a favor and are giving the person a chance to say "no" to the request.

May I ask a favor of you? Could you spare fifteen minutes?

Will you please handle the production reports for me while I am away?

c. Reword the sentence if you are unsure whether to use a period or a question mark so that the intent of the question/statement is clear:

Would you be willing to handle the production reports for me while I'm away?

I would appreciate your handling the production reports for me while I'm away.

d. [Sensitivity to special requests] When you are addressing a request to someone who reports to you, you expect that person to comply. Therefore, a period can properly be used to punctuate such requests. However, since most people prefer to be asked to do something rather than be told to do it, a question mark establishes a nicer tone and often gets better results. Consider using a question mark when your request to a subordinate involves something beyond the routine aspects of the job.

Will you please let me know that your vacation plans are for the month of August. (routine)

May I ask that you avoid scheduling any vacation time during August this year? I will need your help in preparing next year's forecasts and budgets. (special request)

[Or] simply drop the attempt at politeness and issue a straight forward command.

I must ask that you not schedule any vacation time during August this year. I will need your help in preparing next year's forecasts and budgets.

(Sabin 103)

Note: There are excellent details and usage examples in the Gregg Reference Manual that are not found in other style manuals. The inclusion of this manual in your collection of reference books would be well worth the expense.


A related topic is the "rhetorical question", which is a question meant to make a point rather than to receive a response.




Works Cited

  • Azar, Betty Schrampfer, and Stacy A. Hagen. Understanding and Using English Grammar. 4th ed., Pearson Education, 2009.
  • Huddleston, Rodney D., and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge UP, 2002.
  • Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage. 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2005.

Style Manuals

  • Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed., U of Chicago P, 2010.
  • Gregg Reference Manual. Edited by William A. Sabin, 11th ed., McGraw-Hill Education, 2011.





Practice 1


an old couple walking

What is the meaning of would in each sentence?


Would you like to walk or drive?

Let's walk. Would you hold my hand?

I would but my hands are full.

When we first started dating, you would always hold my hand.
That was then.






Practice 2

Talking About Hair

hair cut


Which expression best completes the sentence?

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "Check" or the "Check 5-15" button.