Modal Verbs: Can Vs. Could

I’ve often shuddered at “should of,” which of course should have been should’ve, the contraction for “should have.” The same sin is often committed with “could of” and would of.” Sometimes these expressions are contracted even further into “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” Shiver me timbers! Perfect tenses of these verbs use “have,” not “of.”

These three verbs are examples of Modal Verbs, which express necessity, advice, ability, expectation, permission or possibility. Modal verbs often come in pairs. These include:
– May, Might
– Shall, Should
– Can, Could
– Will, Would
– Must, Ought to

We covered May vs. Might in Tip #139 last week. Today we will visit Can vs. Could.

“Can” expresses ability in the present (= is able to), whereas “could” expresses ability in the past (= was able to).

Today, Well 890 can produce 60 barrels of oil per day.
When it was first drilled, Well 890 could produce 250 barrels of oil per day.

“Could” is also used to express possibility, to make suggestions, and to make requests. “Could” is also used as the conditional form of the verb “can.”

The Vice President could show up any minute now. (possibility)
You could try stimulating that well to see if production increases. (suggestion)
Could you please tell me where the coffee filters are? (request)
If I didn’t have to answer her questions every 20 minutes, I could finish that report today. (conditional form of “can”)


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