Reading elsewhere on this forum, it seems that "will" when used as a modal auxiliary is not regarded as having tense (despite that dictionaries seem to regard "would" as its past tense), even though it is used to convey future tense. Instead, posted comments seem to regard "will" has having mood. If that's the case, what mood? Often related modals like would, could, should, and might are considered to have "conditional" mood, I don't see what their counterparts (will, can, shall, may) mood designations are.

  • 2
    The short answer is that syntactically, the modal auxiliary verb "will" has two tenses: present and preterite. Semantically, it is used to make reference to future time (about 80% of its occurrences, I believe) but also for expressing volition. It does, of course, express mood, hence it being called a 'modal' auxiliary verb.
    – BillJ
    Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 9:31
  • @BillJ - I get that modal verbs express mood and that "will's" counterpart "would"'s mood is "conditional", but what is the mood of "will"? Also, if "will" can have preterite tense, what would be an example? Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 18:38
  • By the gods, I will go now or tomorrow, I have not yet decided. There is no "mood designation".will here is intend.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 21:32
  • @tangosquared "Will" expresses epistemic modality, conditional consequence and of course futurity.See my comment to Colin Fine.
    – BillJ
    Commented Sep 20, 2020 at 6:58

2 Answers 2


Historically, the English modals had tense, and mostly came in pairs of present/past: can/could, will/would, shall/should, may/might, dare/durst.

There are vestiges of this pairing still, so can, will, shall become could, would, should in past-tense reported speech. ("I will!" "He said he would!")

But all the originally past-tense forms also have independent uses, and in those uses it does not make sense to talk of any of them as having a tense.

In my view it does not make any sense to talk of mood in relation to them either. vaguer and less clear by saying "the volitional" instead of "modal will".

  • Thanks. You somewhat confirmed my evolving understanding that "tense" for modal verbs may be a somewhat obsolete, or at a minimum, misleading classification (as may also be "mood"). However, those characteristics might still be useful to me as my task is to parse out semantic meaning by categorizing words in a phrase. So knowing that may and might, can and could, and will and would are related but convey different intents may be helpful. Similarly, while "will" clearly isn't future tense, it seems to be a common element of future construction. Commented Sep 20, 2020 at 0:02
  • Syntactically, "would" is undoubtedly the preterite (past) form of "will", since it's the form required in backshift, just as "could" and "might" are the preterite forms of "can" and "may". "Will" conveys a lower degree of modality than the others, but it does express epistemic modality, conditional consequence and of course futurity. Past tense "would" has three uses: past time, backshift and modal remoteness.
    – BillJ
    Commented Sep 20, 2020 at 6:54

I found this, https://www.thoughtco.com/tense-grammar-1692532, to be helpful in that it seems to imply that "tense" is more of a syntactical classification and that may be separate from the semantic role of a verb. But it also seems to imply that "can" and "may" are conditional moods, and possibly that "will" is also, but perhaps that is intended to refer to the construction of the modal with the verb it is supporting, as in "I may walk" is present conditional.

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