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A native speaker told me that using "could" would be unnatural in the first example, but it works in the second. Do both sentences express permission?

If I am not mistaken "could" is used when asking for permission. If both express permission, then why doesn't "could" work in the first example? Or is the first sentence asking "are we allowed?" In which case "could" isn't used?

  1. Can we look words up in a dictionary?
  2. Can/could I borrow your dictionary, please?
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    I can't see why could wouldn't be used in 1 if asking for permission.
    – None
    Nov 1, 2021 at 15:19
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    (1) could be asking about ability (is there a dictionary available?) or permission. Nov 1, 2021 at 15:51
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    Could doesn't just mean would we be able to?, it can also mean please let me. Could we look up words... can be a request for eg. the teacher to let you use the dictionary. But that's different from asking the teacher if it is allowed (ie. you're asking what the rules are, rather than pleading), in which case you'd use can. Nov 1, 2021 at 16:23
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    Could can be used to politely ask permission - dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/could Nov 1, 2021 at 16:56
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    "Could" is possible in 1. provided the sentence is intended to refer to past time. But if it's intended to refer to present time both "can" and "could" are possible. "Can" and "could" are both possible in 2. The choice depends on whether the speaker uses dialect A or dialect B.
    – BillJ
    Nov 1, 2021 at 17:05

1 Answer 1

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Do both sentences express permission?

Not necessarily. Context will provide the answer. The second sentence is clearly a request for permission, but the first could be asking about what one is able to do. Say, if the previous question was "What is a dictionary for?"

But there's a third word often used for permission: may. Can technically and officially means "able to, but it is very often used in casual speech when we mean to talk about permission. Elementary school teachers and overly pedantic people might enjoy correcting it:

"Can I ask a question?"
"You mean may I ask a question. Obviously you can—you are able to—because you just asked one."

But such use is so widespread that the correction is perhaps unreasonable in all but the most formal contexts.

Could complicates things: it's just can, but in the conditional tense. But this conditional is commonly used to make a request less direct and more polite. "Can I/Could I borrow your dictionary?" Both are very common usage. Both will be understood (by any reasonable person) as a request for permission. But the "could" version is just a little softer (since the conditional suggests some uncertainty, some openness to the possibility that the person might say "no").

In the Disney movie Frozen, a bit of wordplay highlights the way could can shift from a hypothetical conditional to permission (and its relationship to may): Surprised by a gift, a character exclaims "I could kiss you!" and then, embarrassed, continues, "I could. I mean, I’d like to. May I? I mean, may we?" Could started simply as expressing conditional possibility, and as he shifted his meaning to requesting permission, he transitioned to may.

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  • Is adding "please" unnecessary to the original sentence? And when talking about favors, permission, polite requests, or when asking for information is it better to use "please?" Nov 1, 2021 at 16:19
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    "Please" is grammatically unnecessary, but always a good idea for politeness. Also, adding it to "Can we look up words in a dictionary" makes it clear that you're asking for permission, not whether you're able to. Nov 1, 2021 at 17:11
  • you said "but the first could be asking about what one is able to do. Say, if the previous question was "What is a dictionary for?" Do you mean 1."Can we look words up in a dictionary?" the first sentence means "we are able to use it to find new words?" Nov 1, 2021 at 17:33
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    @AntoniaA Yes, that could be a meaning if the context led to that understanding. Or it could also be a request if the context (or adding "please," or changing "can" to "could") made the request clear. Nov 1, 2021 at 17:40
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    @AntoniaA 1) Let's not use a comment section for new questions; questions about "please" should be posted separately. (But the grammar doesn't have to do with the word "please," but about dependent clauses, which can be removed from a sentence without making the sentence ungrammatical.) 2) "Request" and "permission" are not synonyms, but I was using them to talk about the same thing, "a request for permission." I suppose you could also use can/could for a request that someone do something: "Could you pass me the salt?" (But you couldn't use "may" in this situation!) Nov 2, 2021 at 12:10

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