'Would' or ‘Could’: What's the Difference?

By Carly Forsaith, updated on January 18, 2023

So you're wondering whether to use 'would' or 'could' but need clarification on the difference between the two? This article will help.

In short, 'could' expresses possibility, and 'would' expresses intent. That is the short version, though, as it is more complicated than that. Read on to learn more.

Key Differences Between 'Would' or 'Could'

'Could' or 'would' are both auxiliary verbs which means they assist another verb in the sentence. They are used to talk about situations that are currently imaginary. That isn't to say they won't come true, but for the moment, they are hypothetical.

'Could' feels more hypothetical, like a suggestion, while 'would' feels more certain, like an intention.

Or, quite simply, they can both be used to talk about an event in the past since they are, in fact, past tenses of root verbs.

  • 'Could' is the past tense of 'can'
  • 'Would' is the past tense of 'will.'

So let's take a more in-depth look at what the differences between each are.

When to Use 'Could'

There are many different ways you can use the word 'could.' The first is as the past tense of the verb 'can' to talk about things you used to be allowed or able to do. For example:

When I was a teenager, I could cycle to school if I wanted to.

The second use of the word 'could' is a polite way to ask for something.

Could you pass me the salt, please?

You can also use 'could' to form the subjunctive mood, which is used to express a wish or hypothetical situation. For example:

If I had lots of money, I could buy a house.

Many deaths could be prevented.

And finally, you can use 'could' to make a suggestion.

You could always hire someone to help with the extra workload.

When to Use 'Would'

Just like 'could,' there are also many different ways to use the word 'would.' The first is in the past tense form of the verb "will." That means we can talk about things we used to do in the past. For example:

When Paul was a teenager, he would cycle to school.

The difference between this example and the earlier one with 'could' is that this sentence is more definitive. Paul actually cycled to school in this last sentence. In the previous one, he said that he had the option to do that if he wanted to, but we don't know if he did.

'Would' can also be used as a polite way to ask for something, just like 'could.' The two words are interchangeable in this sense.

Would you pass me the salt, please?

You can also use 'would' to talk about hypothetical situations, but instead of talking about something that is merely a possibility, 'would' tells the listener what the reality would be.

If I had lots of money, I would buy a house.

Many deaths would be prevented.

These two examples are the same as I used earlier with 'could' because I wanted to show you that 'would' is much more definitive. If you're saying that with a smoking ban, many deaths "could" be prevented, you're saying that's an option. If you say that many deaths "would" be prevented, you're saying it is a certainty.

'Would' can also be used to talk about what someone was willing or unwilling to do. For example:

I asked him what had happened, but he wouldn't tell me.

And lastly, you can use 'would' "to refer to an intention from the point of view of the past." For example:

You said you would never get a dog.

Top tip! You can shorten "I would" to the contraction "I'd." That works with all the pronouns.

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce 'Would' or 'Could'

Now you know when to use each word, let's learn how to pronounce them.

How to Pronounce 'Would'

The International Phonetic Alphabet spells 'would' like this:


And when you say it, it sounds like this:


How to Pronounce 'Could'

The International Phonetic Alphabet spells 'could' like this:


And when you say it, it sounds like this:


Example Sentences with 'Would' or 'Could'

Let's look at some more examples of sentences that use the words 'could' and 'would' so you can understand how to use them in context even better.

We'll start with 'would':

Would you like another Margarita?

As kids, my brother and I would prank each other all the time.

Would you please direct me to the closest bathroom?

We would love it here if only the house were a little bigger.

It was so frosty this morning that the car wouldn't start, no matter how hard I tried.

Now for some examples with the word 'could.'

As my sister stepped onto the bus back to Chicago, I could already feel my face welling up with tears.

I wish I could speak to him just one more time.

You didn't think you could do it, yet here you are, doing a great job of it.

Hello, please could I speak with Dr. Martin?

We could go to the Friendly Bean Cafe; I think they serve food there.

Final Thoughts on 'Would' or 'Could'

Knowing whether to use 'would' or 'could' can be pretty tricky, as it's only a fairly subtle difference. I think it often helps to remember the root form of the verbs "will" and "can." Remember: 'would' is an intention, and 'could' is a possibility.

And if in doubt, of course, you can always come back to this article to double-check. Why not bookmark it now so you easily find it again?

And if you'd like to learn more confusing words, head to our blog!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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