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The correct sentence is "Can I smoke here?", but I wonder why I can't use "could" in this question.

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    Actually, the correct sentence is "May I smoke here?" One presumes the person asking the question is capable of smoking, and is using "can" to mean "is allowed". – Monty Harder Oct 1 '18 at 20:48
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    "Sure, if set on fire" came the answer.. +1 To Monty's comment, by the way - " 'can' suggests ability, 'may' suggests permission". If could is the equivalent of can (to you), you might still not be allowed to smoke there even if you had the ability (I.e. you were currently or had recently been on fire) – Caius Jard Oct 2 '18 at 8:11
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Actually I think it's more what is idiomatic than what is grammatical. There is nothing wrong with, "Could I smoke here?" but it doesn't mean the same thing as, "Can I smoke here?"

"Could", in this context, is often a conditional. It implies you're asking if it's possible to do something, if some other condition is met. For example:

I know you don't like people smoking in your car, but it's been hours since my last cigarette. If I rolled down the window, could I smoke?

More on the differences between "could" and "can".

(Edit) as FumbleFingers points out, the actual conditional requirement can be unstated, or even something as basic as "... if I want to". "Could" merely implies that there is some conditional involved.

(Edit2) Muzer and others point out that could is often used as a slightly more deferential way to say can, in which case, "Could I smoke?" is perfectly natural. "May I smoke?" may be more common, though.

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    I think the [required?] "conditional" could be merely implied, not explicitly stated. Which could in principle (in practice, so far as I'm concerned) be something as "weak" as [...if I wanted to]. Given here, the circumstances must be pretty "immediate", but you could certainly assume if we went in this cafe if spoken outside the cafe before having definitely agreed to enter. – FumbleFingers Oct 1 '18 at 15:42
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    ...plus of course there's the greater "distance" implied by using could, would instead of can, will, reflecting deferential / hesitant politeness. Hence you might ask Would I be allowed to smoke?* instead of Will I be allowed? (itself already a "distanced irrealis" version of Am I allowed?). – FumbleFingers Oct 1 '18 at 15:51
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    @FumbleFingers or combinations with "may/might", e.g. "I wonder if I might possibly be allowed to smoke here?" – Andrew Oct 1 '18 at 16:26
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    Could is also used in British English as a slightly softer-sounding alternative to can, when asking for permission to do something. I don't think anyone ever thinks about a conditional, implied or otherwise, in these cases. – Muzer Oct 1 '18 at 17:31
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    (American here.) In response to "Can i ...?" questions, it's reasonably common to hear "I don't know, can you?" sorts of responses--when the asker is clearly asking for permission. So, "May i smoke?" feels more correct, at least in American English. – b w Oct 1 '18 at 17:48
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Could I smoke here?

adds some unknown condition, for example you don't actually have any cigarettes, or a lighter, or it is raining hard, or you don't have time to smoke.

  • I think Gill is right here. As she explains, in the use #2, either can or could might be used, but could expresses a polite request whereas can is not quite as polite. – Lucian Sava Oct 1 '18 at 18:24
  • @LucianSava at which time in that 18 minute YouTube does Gill come to the point? I am a native English speaker with a formal education. I might miss some points of grammar but I don't need lessons. Can you please post that as an answer? – Weather Vane Oct 1 '18 at 18:34
  • Sorry for my comment, I didn't mean to offend you. She merely presents a simplified explanation. – Lucian Sava Oct 1 '18 at 18:45
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    @LucianSava a simplified explanation that’s 18 minutes long!? – Tim Oct 1 '18 at 21:46
  • Of the point in question @Tim, ie #2 which lasts perhaps 1-2 minutes, in case you didn't notice what are we talking about here. – Lucian Sava Oct 2 '18 at 7:30

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