Difference Between Can and Could (With Table)

The ability or a doing cannot be described without using a verb, and while describing it, helping verbs play a crucial role. There are two types of helping verbs; modal verbs and auxiliary verbs. “Can” and “could” are examples of these two types of verbs, respectively. The former is used in the present, while the latter is a past form of ‘can’.

Can vs Could

The difference between can and could is that their usage and the tone. ‘Can’ is used to represent an action or condition in the present; “could”, being a past form of can, is used to represent a past ability. Talking of the tone, ‘can’ sounds informal while ‘could’ has a polite touch.

The literal meaning of can is “to be able to do something”; sometimes even “permitted to carry out a task”. To talk or describe one’s ability to do something in the present, ‘can’ is used.

For example, “I can dance” or “Can you pick up the pen?”

Even though the meaning of ‘could’ is the same as that of ‘can’, it is used to talk about someone’s ability to do/ carrying out a task in the past. It can also be used to talk about the present ability of an individual to do something, but they might not actually do it.

For example, “The earthquake could have been worse” or “The food could have tasted better.”

Comparison Table Between Can and Could

Parameters of ComparisonCanCould
MeaningThe word “can” refers to be able to do something.The word “could” means the ability or possibility of doing something.
Type of verbModal verb A modal and auxiliary verb
Type of possibilityIt shows a strong possibility.It shows the weak possibility.
AbilityPresentPast
ToneInformalPolite

What is Can?

The verb “can” is a modal verb, a very base form of the verb. It is most commonly used while speaking or writing English. It is generally used to portray a present situation. It expresses ability or a possibility. 

It is also used to tell someone that they are capable of doing something. Except for conveying the ability of someone to do something, “can” is also used to seek permission, to request, to convey a possibility and opportunity.

The examples for the above-mentioned uses are as follows:

  1. Ability: I can make music and dance too.
  2. Permission: Can you lend me a pen?
  3. Request: Can you help me in completing an assignment?
  4. Possibility: You can be the winner.
  5. Offer: Can I help you to cross the road?

It can also be used to ask a polite question, only when you are seeking permission for doing or saying something.

What is Could?

The verb “could” is an auxiliary verb that is a past participle of “can”. It generally depicts the past ability of someone to do something that may or may not have occurred. It refers to something that you believe in or know is truly going to take place.

Along with past ability, it can also be used to convey a potential possibility; meaning “could” can also be used as future tense of “can”. Moreover, it can be used to suggest something, ask for permission, and also as a conditional form of “can”. 

The examples for the above statement are given below:

  1. Ability: I could sing well when I was younger.
  2. Possibility: You could get good marks this time.
  3. Suggestion: He could rewrite and fix the mistakes.
  4. Permission: Could you pass me the file?
  5. Conditional form of “can”: I could make you dinner if you told me what you want to have.

Main Differences Between Can and Could

  1. The word ‘can’ is used to point out a thing or person’s ability to do something. On the other hand, the word ‘could’ is used to express a past ability of someone’s in doing something.
  2. The word ‘could’ is used when there is uncertainty in the occurrence of a certain situation, while the word ‘can’ assures the occurrence. In other words, ‘could’ represents a weak possibility, whereas ‘can’ represents a strong possibility of an event.
  3. ‘Can’ is used to state present situations, i.e. it is used in the present tense. On the contrary, ‘could’ is used as a past tense of can. For example, I can write articles. (fact); I wish I could write articles (future)
  4. The verb ‘can’ being a modal verb, its usage is followed by the main verb stating a fact, whereas the verb ‘could’ is a past form of can/ past participle used with the main verb to state a past ability of someone.
  5. Even though the uses of both words being similar, their tones are different. ‘Can’ sounds more informal while the other has a formal, rather polite tone. The former is generally used while talking to friends or relatives, whereas the latter is used while talking to professionals, elders, or even strangers.

Conclusion

Verbs are an important aspect of written and spoken English, as they give structure to sentences and stabilize grammatically. The words ‘can’ and ‘could’ are most commonly and juxtaposed verbs as they have similar meanings.

These two words, ‘can’ and ‘could’, are always used interchangeably. The juxtapositioning of these words is very common. Both these words convey four same things; ability, possibility, permission, suggestion/ request. The only way in which these two words differ is tense; ‘can’ is associated with present situations while the other is associated with sentences discussing past ability or possibility. ‘Could’ is also used while talking about the future.

While asking permission or while requesting and even while suggesting something, both ‘can’ and ‘could’ are used, but the word ‘could’ sounds more polite. On the contrary, ‘can’ sounds informally and can be used casually.

References

  1. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=ydXwDQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=can+and+could+grammar&ots=LjmyrqVtq_&sig=52vYi5_N-YuY8P7BWRhm41XwYOc
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