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Understanding and Using Modal Verbs (#12), by Dennis Oliver

 
 

Modal Verbs #12:
Individual Modal Verbs

 

 

The English modal verbs are often challenging for learners
of English. This happens for many reasons, including both
grammar and meaning.

In this Hint, we'll look at more basic information on could.


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Could #2:
Polite Requests

 

The modal auxiliary could is used in several very different
ways. One happens when sentences with
can are used in
indirect (reported) speech and the main verb is past. Another
way to use
could is for polite requests. When could is used
in this way, the time is present or future.

Examples:

Could I have your attention, please?

(May I . . . ? is also possible. So is Can I . . . ?,
but
Can I . . . ? is informal and casual, while
Could I . . . ? is formal and polite.)

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Could you help me?

(Will you . . . ? is also possible. So is Can you . . . ?,
but
Can you . . . ? is informal and casual, while
Could you . . . ? is formal and polite.)

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Could
we have a few minutes' break? We've been
working hard for a long time!

(May we . . . ? is also possible. So is Can we . . . ?,
but
Can we . . . ? is informal and casual, while
Could we. . . ? is formal and polite.)

 


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Special Notes:


1. In the sentences above, the time for could
is present or future. It is
not past.
     
2.   When native speakers of English use could
instead of can in making requests, they feel
that
could is "softer," more polite, and more
deferential than
can.
     
3.   When native speakers of English respond to
requests, they generally do
not use could or
any modal auxiliary. Instead, they say something
like "Yes," "Certainly," "No, thanks," or "I'm
afraid not." If a modal auxiliary is used in the
response, it is usually
may ("Yes, you may,"
"No, you may not.")
     
4.  

Although may is not used in making requests,
might sometimes is. When might is used in
this way, it is in present or future (not past) time
and refers to possibility:

Might you help me? ( = Is it possible that you
could help me?)


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Next: more on modal verbs

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