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In the following sentences:

"If only he knew about the surprise party that is awaiting him."

This one refers to a wish in the present - and it is correct.

My question is about the following one, which I want to use "as is":

"If only he could know about the surprise party that is awaiting him."

This one also, is about a wish which is not fulfilled, in the present.

Is it grammatically correct to use this second one as is, or is the first one preferred? Or maybe both are fine.

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  • They're both fine, but they mean different things, the same difference between "know" and "could know". I know how to speak Japanese; I could know how to speak it better, if I lived in Japan.
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 28, 2018 at 23:45
  • Thanks, Andrew, They surely differ in meaning and I prefer the first one.
    – Tommy
    Commented Oct 28, 2018 at 23:53
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    It's not really about preference. It just depends on what you want to say. The second actually has more nuance.
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 28, 2018 at 23:57

2 Answers 2

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Both sentences are perfectly grammatically correct. There is no grammatical preference for one over the other. That said, the two sentences are semantically different, and their content says two completely different things. The two sentences are NOT interchangeable. You CANNOT substitute one for the other, just as you cannot substitute "I like apples" for "I like oranges". They mean two different things. Likewise, you can't substitute "I wasn't aware there was a party, so I didn't go to the party" for "I was kidnapped and locked in a closet, so I didn't go to the party." All of these sentences are grammatically fine, it's the content that is different.

"If only he knew about the surprise party that is awaiting him."

He doesn't know about the party now, but if he learns about it, something significant will happen... presumably, he will be extremely happy and surprised. I don't want him to learn about it early, but I am eager and excited to see his pleasant reaction at the party's reveal.

"If only he could know about the surprise party that is awaiting him."

He is incapable of learning about the party by any means, but I wish he was able. I am sad that he is unable to obtain this knowledge; maybe he is far away and can't receive communication, or maybe he is sick in the hospital, in a medically induced coma. Whatever his condition, he literally can't know, and I wish he could.

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Both are fine.

We use if only with a past-tense verb to express a wish for the present situation.

If only he knew...(He does not know)

We can also use 'could' with 'if only'. But we cannot use 'would' in place of 'could'.

If I could...

If only I spoke English. (but I don't)

If only I could speak English (but I can't)

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