Why 'can', not 'could' in "She told us that we can use the kitchen."?

I thought that since the main verb is 'told' that the following sentence after 'that~' should use the past tense, 'could', too. Could anybody help me understand what I am missing here?


Can isn't a verb, it's a modal. So it doesn't have a tense.

Modals modify existing verbs (which don't change tense when used with a modal) and cover situations that don't fit neatly in past or present categories.

Now, often you can substitute be able to for can, and often you can substitute was able to for could, but can and especially could have many more uses and meanings. Basically, could isn't strictly a "past form" of can.

Things get more complex if you were to throw have in there: You can say I could have done X, and I can't have done X, but you can't say I can have done X (don't confuse this with I can have X done). Because of this could is more associated to past tense things than can and typically sounds better.

Furthermore, in both your examples, can/could is probably (guessing without context) really meaning allowed to, not able to, and may would technically be more accurate. However since modals are often "misused" for politeness and other reasons, no one usually cares.

So use either one; could will sound better but it's not wrong to use can.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    "(~)probably (guessing without context) really meaning allowed to, not able to, and may would technically be more accurate." Oh, I see :> I now realize I was preoccupied with the tense part without considering the modal role of 'can/could'..! Thanks for the detailed answer to my Q. (I am a total newb here and Idk how to 'quote' your reply like the other answer below did ;) – longne Nov 21 '19 at 19:16
  • 1
    This is wrong. Could, as well as having its own meanings, certainly does function as the past of can (and similarly would of will). Could would be expected here because the matrix verb is past tense. What is required is to explain why can is also possible. – Colin Fine Nov 21 '19 at 19:47
  • Can isn't even a verb. Tense is techincally an invalid concept with it. That's why you can say things like "I could look into this tomorrow [future]" and "I can see why he stopped [past]". – LawrenceC Nov 21 '19 at 20:05

She told us that we can use the kitchen [now].

She told us that we could use the kitchen [yesterday].

The modal verbs can and could represent the ability of a person or thing to do something.

The difference in their usage is that, could is used to show that something is possible, but not certain, whereas ‘can‘ is used to make general statement about what is possible.

For example:

They could be at home. (= Maybe they are at home, maybe they are out.)

It can be very cold here in winter. (= It is sometimes very cold here in winter.)

| improve this answer | |
  • Is it quite that simple? She told us [yesterday] that we can use the kitchen [any time we like]. She told us [yesterday] that we could use the kitchen [any time we like]. In both cases 'she told us` in the past that we have the ability to use the kitchen. When we are able to use it is not conveyed. As I see @LawrenceC has mentioned, can/could is not really acting to convey a sense of time. In this context, the sentences are pretty much identical in meaning. – fred2 Nov 21 '19 at 18:54
  • You're not wrong... – NeilB Nov 21 '19 at 19:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.