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Understanding and Using Modal Verbs (#15), by Dennis Oliver


Modal Verbs #15:
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 see another use for could.


Could #5:
Unreal Conditions
(present / future time)


Could is also used in unreal conditional ("if") sentences.
Conditional sentences of this kind refer to situations that are
hypothetical, impossible, contrary to fact--in other words,
unreal situations. In them, could is used in place of can,
but the time is present or future,
not past.


If I
could solve this problem, I wouldn't need your help.

( = I need your help because I can't solve this problem.)


If Julia could afford to buy a car, she wouldn't have to
go to work by bus.

( = Julia has to go to work by bus because she can't afford
to buy a car.)


If he could start all over again, he'd do a better job.

( = He can't start all over again, so he won't do as well
with the job as he would like.)


If she
couldn't help you, she would tell you.

( = She won't tell you that she can't help you because she can.)


Special Note:

In all the sentences above, the time for both the "if" clause
and the result clause is present or future, not past, because
in conditional sentences, a difference in tense (above, past)
and time (above, present or future) is a kind of "signal"
used to show that the situations are hypothetical, contrary
to fact, or impossible.


Next: more on modal verbs

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