1

Friend: John, can you come to the party tonight?

  1. John: Sorry, no. I could come, but my mum is very ill and I have to take care of her.

  2. John: Sorry, no. I could've come, but my mum is very ill and I have to take care of her.

  3. John: Sorry, no. I would come, but my mum is very ill and I have to take care of her.

  4. John: Sorry, no. I would've come, but my mum is very ill and I have to take care of her.

Q: Can I use the word "but" in this way with the modal verbs "could" and "would" to completely negate what has been said in the previous clause, instead of using any conditional markers like "if", "provided that", "otherwise" etc?

2
  • 1
    Yes, it is normal to use but in this context. Mar 15 at 10:59
  • 1
    The word but in your examples doesn't necessarily imply that whatever precedes it (a present or future action) won''t / can't happen. But the "Perfect" forms could / would have [done something] both imply that the action referred to didn't happen (and it was only a possibility in the past anyway; it's meaningless to ask whether it might happen in the present or future). Mar 15 at 14:07
3

Option 3 is correct:

I would come, but my mum is very ill and I have to take care of her.

"Would" indicates your personal intention, so this means that you would personally choose to go, but there is a reason that prevents you.

The others need attention, for various reasons.

I could come, but my mum is very ill and I have to take care of her.

"Could" can be used to indicate possibility, but when we use it with "but" it is usually to introduce a condition, not to negate it, for example:

I could come, but I'll have to find someone to look after my mum.


I could've come, but my mum is very ill and I have to take care of her.

"Could have" doesn't work with a future (or hypothetical) event, only a past event, for example:

I could've gone, but my mum was very ill and I had to take care of her.


I would've come, but my mum is very ill and I have to take care of her.

Same reason as above - "would have" is for referring to past events.

7
  • So in sentence (1), "but" partially negates it. What if I rewrite sentence (1) like this: I could come if my mum were not ill." Would this be correct?
    – Mr. X
    Mar 15 at 14:36
  • 1
    @Mr.X Not really, you're not thinking about the tense again. "Could" is future... but "were" is is present. You could instead say "I can come if my mum isn't ill", or "I could come if mum gets better".
    – Astralbee
    Mar 16 at 8:26
  • So these sentences, too, would not work: 1) If my leg were not injured, I could come with you to the market 2) If my leg were not injured, I could be playing with them now. Am I right?
    – Mr. X
    Mar 16 at 8:43
  • 1
    @Mr.X Actually those do work... because a past injury can still affect you now. Saying "my leg was injured" is referring to an event in which your leg was hurt, but some people do idiomatically say "my leg is injured" to mean they still have an injury.
    – Astralbee
    Mar 16 at 9:04
  • 1
    @Mr.X That's it, basically.
    – Astralbee
    Mar 16 at 9:46

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