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Scene 1 from the movie Little Miss Sunshine

Richard: And how Dwayne's utilizing seven of them in his personal quest to self-fulfillment.

Sheryl: Richard, please.

Richard: Well, I'm just saying I've come around. I think he could use our support.

Olive: How did it happen?

Frank: How did what happen?

Olive: Your accident.

Scene 2 from The Matrix

Morpheus: I imagine that right now, you're feeling a bit like Alice. Hmm? Tumbling down the rabbit hole?

Neo: You could say that.

Morpheus: I see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically, that's not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?

Neo: No.

Scene 3 from The Matrix Reloaded

Morpheus: Neo, if you're out there I could use some help.

My best guess is that the first could signals a suggestion or offer, the second giving permission and the third expressing strong feelings (conditional).

Please help to explain the different usages of could here.

  • 1
    I think that "could" in all those examples can be interpreted as expressing a possibility. The context in Scene 3 of course signals a suggestion, but I don't think one can argue that a permission is requested or granted in Scene 2. – Nico May 10 '14 at 18:15
  • The context in Scene 3 definitely doesn't signal a suggestion. Morpheus says that for himself, not to Neo. Neo is flying to him and the keymaker. Obviously Morpheus doesn't know Neo is coming for his rescue. The answer below also precludes that possibility. @Nico – Kinzle B May 13 '14 at 15:05
  • I interpreted that context as Morpheus, figuratively, asking for help to Neo. In hindsight, I would remove "obviously" from my previous comment, because it sounds patronising and that's far from my intention. – Nico May 13 '14 at 15:12
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    It's hard to answer this in a single comment. Yes, I agree it is a request, but I also think it is expressed as a suggestion. Morpheus needs help, but instead of asking "could you help​​ ?", he expresses the request as a suggestion to himself "I could use some help". – Nico May 13 '14 at 16:53
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    We're discussing "I could use some help" in the chat room. It is a common collocation/idiom. Its meaning is better explained by how it is used than by the usage of "could" as a modal verb. – Nico May 13 '14 at 17:32
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In example one Richard is suggesting that providing support to Dwayne may be helpful to him. It's less strong than 'he needs our support'.

On the face of it, example three is exactly the same as example one: Morpheus is suggesting that Neo's help might make something easier. It's not that simple, however, as this is a fairly common case of understatement where Morpheus really means that he needs Neo's help.

Example two is a bit different as it's a stock phrase that means, essentially, yes. In this example I think it's used to suggest that while what Morpheus says is more or less correct, it's not the way that Neo would have said it, or that while the overall meaning is correct, the details are wrong.

If the emphasis was on the last word in the sentence, 'you could say that', it would then be a suggestion that that would be the best thing to say. If it was giving permission to say something it would most likely be something like 'you can say that' or 'you may say that'.

  • I can't agree more. Just one more thing, why would Morpheus want to understate here? Can you plz give me some more examples with this particular usage of "could"? – Kinzle B May 12 '14 at 16:33
  • It's a long time since I've seen the movie and I'm struggling to explain why he uses that phrase. It could just be that he's the sort of person who can't admit to needing help. I think the characters motivations are outside the scope of this site anyway. I'll try to think of some more examples of that phrase in use, though. By the way, since we're discussing "could" I'll point out that we'd normally say "I couldn't agree more" rather than "can't". – Alan Third May 13 '14 at 13:50
  • Yep, you are right. I couldn't agree more if I were to give my opinion. The characters motivations are outside the scope of this site, but what we are talking about is the context here. It's totally legit to go beyond grammar or usage. The scenario related to that utterance in the movie seems to be extremely urgent. Morpheus is going to die in seconds. There is no reason for him to understate his words. Fortunately, Neo flies to him and the keymaker in time and rescue them both. You might want to search in Youtube for that specific clip. – Kinzle B May 13 '14 at 14:14

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