The modal verbs can and could represent the ability of a person or thing in doing something. However, there is a difference in their usage, as ‘can‘ is used in present situation, whereas we can use ‘could‘ for talking about a past ability. Both are followed by a base form of the verb. Now look at the example given below to understand their difference in a better way:
- When I was young, I could only sing bhajans, but now I can sing classical songs.
- My aunt could only crawl before the operation, but now she can walk and run.
So in these two cases, you might have observed that can is used to represent present condition of the subject, but could is used to reflect a past ability, as could is nothing but a past form of can.
Content: Can Vs Could
|Basis for Comparison||Can||Could|
|Meaning||Can means be able to or permitted to do something.||Could refers to the possibility or the ability to do something.|
|Pronunciation||kan, kən||kəd, kʊd|
|Ability and Possibility||Present one||In the past|
|Request and Permission||Informal||Polite|
|Examples||I can't wait as I am already very late.||Anuj could have taken taxi to reach the station.|
|Can you pass me the bottle?||Could you give me your pen?|
|She cannot come to the party, as she is in Jaipur.||I wish I could travel the world.|
Definition of Can
In simple words, ‘can’ means to be able or permitted to do something. It is used with the first form or the base form of the verb. Basically, it determines the ability or capability of someone or something. It has several uses as discussed below:
- To define ability:
- I can drive a truck.
- Anirudh can speak 20 languages.
- To give and seek permission:
- Can I have your number?
- Can you help me in finding the purse?
- You can go on the trip.
- You can play with your friends after doing homework.
- To make a request:
- It would be great if you can deliver the message to Sofia.
- Can you get me a glass of water, please?
- To express some possibility:
- Drinking alcohol can damage your liver.
- You can get the monsoon details from the meteorological department.
Definition of Could
Could is the past participle form of the verb ‘can‘ which determines the past ability of someone or something. It is also used when someone is permitted to do something. Now let’s discuss where we can use ‘could’ in our sentences:
- To denote that someone has the ability to do something:
- You could shout when the purse got snatched.
- I could help you if I know you are in trouble.
- To seek permission, especially a polite one:
- Could I make a call?
- Could I go and meet them?
- To make a request:
- Could you wait for a moment, please?
- To give suggestion or advice:
- You could go to Delhi for further studies.
- In imaginary situation or wishes:
- I wish I could meet Amitabh Bachchan.
- To express a slight possibility:
- You could have passed the examination.
- In conditional sentences:
- If you arrange some money, you could start your own business.
- We could save the child if you have brought him to the hospital on time.
Key Differences Between Can and Could
The difference between can and could, are described in the points given below:
- ‘Can’ is a modal verb, which is used with the main verb to express the ability of a person or thing in doing something. On the other extreme, ‘could’ is the past participle or second form of the verb, which is used with the main verb to talk about a past the ability of an individual in doing something.
- While can talks about the possibility of an event in the present situation, could is used to express a slight possibility or the possibility in the past.
- Both can and could are used to ask for permission and also request something, can is more informal one, which is used when we are talking to our friends, relatives or acquaintances. However, when talking to strangers, we can use could, to ask for permission or request politely.
- Example: Can you hear me?
As soon as I reached home, I could hear the noise of the party.
- I can pay my bill.
- Can I take this umbrella?
- Jessica can’t afford to go abroad for studies.
- You could take the flight.
- She could have consulted the doctor.
- Ananya could have told you about the consequences earlier.
How to remember the difference
The words can and could are often juxtaposed, as they are the forms of the verb ‘can’. You should remember that you can use ‘can’ or when you are talking about present ability and possibility or when you are requesting or offering something to your friends, relatives and acquaintances. Similarly, you can use ‘could’ when you discuss about the past ability or possibility or when you are requesting or asking something to ‘strangers’.