English ‘could’ vs. ‘would’ Posted by Gabriele 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.
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.
- 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?)
- 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