I am reading a text. A part of that is as follows:

Paul Washington: My flight doesn't leave until late this afternoon. Is there any possibility of an extended check-out time? I don't want to cause any problems. I'll understand if you can't do it.

Front Desk Clerk: Well, we're busy today...but I could give you an extra hour. Will that help?

Paul Washington: That's a big help. Thanks. I p.m., right?

Why there is "I could give you" instead of "I can give you" in the above text?

1 Answer 1


Could has two slightly distinct uses. One is the past tense of the modal can, indicating possibility/permission/capability in the past:

I could have married someone else, you know.

The other is used in the present and future to indicate a hypothetical, a possibility not simply about possibility/permission/capability, though that can be an element.

I could punch you in the face.

This means that I have the ability to punch you in the face, and that I'm raising the possibility that I might take that action - it's a hypothetical

It could rain tomorrow.

This not only indicates possibility, which is after all always there for most of the world's population, but it is specifically pointing it out as a hypothetical, that might be used in a conversation to prompt other people to think about what might be done in that situation.

Using I could when making an offer to someone is usually about recognising that you aren't giving them all they wanted, but are giving them something that you think might do.

"Do you serve babyfood?"
"No, but I could warm up some that you have with you."

It's also used for threats, raising possibilities in relation to future plans, and so on. Some consider it an example of how English forms a subjunctive, which many other languages have as a distinct mood with distinct verb forms.

  • 1
    No, no. "I could" generally implies "I can", but it raises it as a hypothetical rather than a stated possibility. It a difference in intent, rather than in simple meaning.
    – SamBC
    Mar 8, 2019 at 18:02
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    If you want to say that you think you can do something but aren't sure, you say "I might be able to..."
    – SamBC
    Mar 8, 2019 at 18:03
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    If you say "I can punch you in the face", you are stating that it is possible or permitted to punch them in the face. If you say "I could punch you in the face", you are pointing out that you are able to punch them in the face, and suggesting that they should be aware of that. I'm not sure how to illustrate it more plainly. What other language(s) can you speak? Maybe if there's some common ground we can work it from that angle.
    – SamBC
    Mar 8, 2019 at 18:09
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    I guess part of the problem is that it just isn't a simple concept.
    – SamBC
    Mar 8, 2019 at 18:10
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    In fundamental, literal meaning, possibly no difference. It's a matter of approach and inclination, really an emotional element. You use it in situations like that to indicate that you aren't offering exactly what they asked for, they might be disappointed, but you're trying to help.
    – SamBC
    Mar 8, 2019 at 18:26

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