Word Choice – Can Versus Could

I had a question from a BizWritingTip reader recently. She wrote: “I always have trouble using ‘can’ and ‘could’ in a sentence. Could you please provide some examples?”

Well, not only could I provide some examples, I can.

The word “can” expresses power or ability.

Example

I can provide the answer to your question.?I can finish the report by Friday.

Years ago “could” was the past tense of “can.” However, it is no longer used in this sense. “Could” now implies a probability factor – usually about 50 per cent.

Example

I could provide you with an answer (but I may not).

I could finish the report by Friday. (Using “could” implies the activity is possible but not guaranteed.)

When it comes to asking questions, some writers believe they seem politer if they use “could.”

Example

Could you please send me the figures?

However, this implies the writer is uncertain as to whether the reader has the ability to do so. If this is the way you actually perceive the situation, then stick with “could.” If you want to come across as more forceful and direct, go with “can.”

Example

Can you please send me the figures?

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