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English ‘could’ vs. ‘would’ Posted by on Jun 9, 2015 in English Grammar

Let’s take a closer look at how to use two common English modals: ‘could’ and ‘would’. If you want a brief review of the use of modal verbs in English check out this previous post from this blog. Right now we are going to dive in to* the difference between ‘could’ and ‘would’ and when to use them.

Image by Jennifer on Flickr.com.

Image by Jennifer on Flickr.com.

Often ESL speakers misuse, or inappropriately interchange, the words ‘could’ and ‘would’. Part of the reason for this is that they can be used interchangeably some times, i.e. when making a polite request in the form of a question (Example: Could you help me? or Would you help me?). But ‘could’ and ‘would’ are used in other ways, which are not interchangeable. ‘Could’ and ‘would’ are both used to express conditionality, or the idea that something is not sure or definite, but they have slightly different connotations.  ‘Could’ is used to express possibility, while ‘would’ is used to express definiteness, as long as certain conditions are met.  Keep in mind, the root words for ‘would’ and ‘could’ are ‘will’ (expresses definiteness) and ‘can’ (expresses possibility), respectively.

Take a look at this list of the different uses of ‘could’ and ‘would’ and how they differ.

could

  • Used to express possibility – something may or may not happen (Example: It could rain any minute.)
  • Used to express what is supposed to happen (Example: Jane could be here as early as tomorrow.)
  • Used to express ability, but not desire. (Example: I could come over, but I don’t really feel like leaving the house right now.)
  • Used to make polite requests (Example: Could you help me with my bags?)

would

  • Used to express that something is definite, but conditional. That is, ‘would’ is used when something will happen, if certain conditions are met. (Example: It would be nice to see Beth, if she has time to visit.  The definite here is that seeing Beth is a nice thing, the condition here is that there has to be enough time.)
  • Used to express a desire to complete an action. (Example: I would like to finish my Masters by the time I am 30 years old.)
  • Used to express the idea of future-in-the-past, or what someone said in the past, about future actions. (Example: She said she would deliver the flower by 5pm.)
  • Used at times to express the idea of “used to” or past action. (Example: We would visit my Grandmother every Saturday when I was younger.)
  • Used to make a polite request. (Example: Would you help me for a few minutes?)

Note: In making a request, ‘would’ is slightly more polite than ‘could’, but this is really just a small distinctions. Questions that start with either ‘could’ or ‘would’ are both polite ways to make requests.

The super shorter summary of the difference between ‘could’ and ‘would’ is this:

could = possibility + ability
would = definiteness + desire

I could go on about these two modal verbs all day, but that would get boring after a while. So, I will stop here and you can ask me any other questions you have about ‘could’ and ‘would’ in the comment box below!

*to dive in to – this is an idiom that means ‘to start something’ and it generally implies enthusiasm

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About the Author:Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.


Comments:

  1. Guillermo:

    Hello Gabriele, thanks for sharing. I have just one question: Can I change the ‘can’ for ‘could’ in this sentence?

    “I will stop here and you COULD ask me any other questions you have about ‘could’ and ‘would’ in the comment box below!”

    have a nice day 🙂

    • Gabriele:

      @Guillermo Guillermo,
      Thank you for your questions. The simple answer is yes, you can interchange ‘can’ and ‘could’ in this sentence, but if you do there is a slight difference in connotation of the sentence. If you use ‘could’ you are implying more possibility and less certainty than if you use ‘can’. Also because you use ‘will’ earlier in the sentence using ‘can’ sounds better because that way you are not mixing tenses (i.e. can – will and could – would, usually go together in the same sentence or phrase). I hope this answer helps a little.

  2. Vincent O'Malley:

    Thanks you for this blog post, I now feel able to tackle the age-old question: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” 🙂

  3. Fatih:

    Thank you for the blog Gabrielle,

    Which is a stronger argument ?

    It would be reasonable to consider x for y or
    It could be reasonable to consider x for y

    • Gabriele:

      @Fatih Fatih,
      If I had to choose between just these two options I would say that ‘It would be reasonable to consider x for y’ is the stronger argument, but there may be better ways to make your argument altogether. More information about the context or situation you are using this in would be helpful to know what would be the best phrase to use.
      Best of luck,
      Gabrielle

  4. STUART HILL:

    If, as you say, could = possibility + ability & would = definiteness + desire – then surely if you ask for something using ‘could’ it is just asking if the recipient is actually able to do it; whereas (please reserve ‘while’ just for time-related situations!) the use of ‘would’ is making a request for the recipient to actually do something (not just answer: “yes, I am able to do it, but I am not going to do it”)

  5. lekkie:

    Hi, Gabriele.
    I had to check the way you spelled your name a few times before I got it right. I am more used to see it spelled “Gabriel”. Anyway, I would like to thank you for posting this useful differences of the two words.

  6. lekkie:

    *seeing

  7. Thalyson:

    Can I say, “I would like to do it, but I’ll be punished” ?

  8. Rakad:

    Hi Gabriele
    My question is that why we use can or could and we don’t use would in the following sentence :
    Can/ Could you tell me how to get to the mall?

  9. Dinakar R:

    Hi Gabriele,

    A quickie – I feel the use of “Could you verify your address for me?” sounds more polite than “Would you verify your mailing address for me?”

    Need your view on that.

  10. Mercy:

    Is there any difference between,
    We can see Noah in the book of Genesis
    We could see Noah in the book of Genesis

  11. Isaac:

    Hi Gebriele,
    I would like”thank you “for answering our quotations.Is this sentence correct?
    I would go to school everyday,when i was a student but i could not understand nothing.
    Thank you

  12. rossella furlan:

    in the image:
    should
    could
    would
    DID!

    Can you explain why you use DID instead of DONE?