Could vs. Would – What’s the Difference?

English is full of verbs that seem interchangeable or at least only trivially different, but skilled writers know when and how to use them for maximum clarity.

Could and would are two such verbs. They both have many uses, which makes them confusing for many beginning writers and English language learners.

Although they seem similar, there are definite situations when one word is more appropriate than the other. Verb choice is a crucial part of careful writing, so read on to find out the differences between these two confusing verbs.

What is the Difference Between Could and Would?

In this article, I will compare could vs. would, and I will use both words in several example sentences. This way, you will be able to see them in their proper context.

Additionally, I will show you a memory tool that can help you choose would or could correctly every time.

When to Use Could

Definition of would definition and definition of could definitionWhat does could mean? Could is a verb with many senses.

Could is the past tense of can, a verb used to denote ability. In this sense, could refers to some ability that someone had in the past.

For example,

  • In high school, I could dunk a basketball.
  • In my prime, I could bench press 250 pounds.

In both of these examples, could is being used to express an ability that the speaker had in the past.

In other instances, could is a modal verb used to denote possibility. It is also used for some conditional present and future tenses of can.

For example,

  • You could have gone to the park with your friends if you had finished your homework on time.
  • Over the next three days, temperatures could reach the low 20s in Washington, posing one last crucial test for the buds. –The Washington Post

In both of these examples, could is expressing possibility: things that could have been true or things that could yet come true.

For more on condition sentences, see here.

When to Use Would

Define would and define could What does would mean? Would is also a verb with many senses.

Would is the past tense of will, which denotes both ability and certainty.

  • In high school, I would do my homework on the bus.
  • While I was working, I would go out to eat more frequently.

In these examples, the speaker is using would to express a past action, which is helpful when comparing would vs. could.

Let’s take the first of these two examples,

  • In high school, I could do my homework on the bus.
  • In high school, I would do my homework on the bus.

As you can see, could is simply making a statement of ability. When I was in high school, I could do my homework on the bus. I had the ability to do my homework on the bus, but this doesn’t mean that I did. I simply had the ability to do so.

Conversely, would is making a definite claim. Doing my homework on the bus was something that I did do, not just something that I had the ability to do.

Would is also a modal verb used to denote possibility, and it often refers to something that is conditional but definite within those conditions.

Here are some examples,

  • If I were to take a vacation, it would be somewhere warm and tropical.
  • I would buy a big house if I had a million dollars.
  • A mega-luxury deal that would merge Neiman Marcus with the company that owns Saks Fifth Avenue is in the works, sources told The Post. –New York Post

Again, these examples make definite claims. Let’s again look at the first example,

  • If I were to take a vacation, it could be somewhere warm and tropical.
  • If I were to take a vacation, it would be somewhere warm and tropical.

As you can see, could is making a simple claim of ability. If I were to take a vacation, it could be somewhere tropical, but it also could be somewhere cold—perhaps Colorado to go skiing.

But, when we use would, there is no question where the vacation will be. It will be somewhere tropical.

Trick to Remember the Difference

could versus would Could and would are related, but they mean different things. Could expresses possibility, while would expresses certainty and intent.

A good way to remember the differences between these two words is simply to bring each word back to its root verb.

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

If you are looking to make a statement of ability, think to yourself, “I can do that.”

If you are looking to make a statement of certainty or intent, think to yourself, “I will do that.”

This won’t always get you to the right answer, but it should work most of the time.

Summary

Is it could or would? Both could and would are verbs that have many senses.

  • Could is a conditional verb that expresses possibility.
  • Would is a conditional verb that expresses certainty, intent, or both.

Could is also the past tense of can. Would is the past tense of will. Both of these words start with the same letter as their root verb, which makes them easy to remember.