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Everything is fine right now. Things couldn’t be better.

Everything is fine right now. Things can't be better.

What would be the meaning if we replaced could with can here?

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If something can be, it means that, given the current state of things, it is possible. For example, I can ride a bike because I learned how to as a child.

If something could be, it means that, it is possible, either in the current state of things, or in a future possible state. For example, I could fly a plane if I took lessons.

In the first example, "Things couldn't be better" means that things are at their best, in a general sense. It is not possible, in any way, for things to be better. "Things can't be better", means that in the current state of things, the situation cannot improve. "Things couldn't be better" is more commonly used in my experience.

In your second example, "I couldn't live in a city", the use of "couldn't" means that the speaker cannot imagine any situation where they could possibly live happily in a city. If the sentence were to use "can't", one might understand that for some reason, the speaker is not able to live in a city right now (can't afford rent, for example). This does not mean that they may not in the future be able to.

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    It's a fine distinction in meaning that normally doesn't have any significance, since the overwhelming preference for couldn't in OP's context is primarily down to "idiomatically established" rather than "carries the exact sense intended". But I'd say you have explained that potential difference very succinctly. May 28, 2021 at 14:29

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