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Let’s say I want to describe an imaginary scenario in the future. Which of these two sentences is better and more idiomatic?

  1. It would be better if she said I could never talk to her again.
  2. It would be better if she said I can never talk to her again.

As of now that person hasn’t told me nothing of the sort so every verb and the entire situation should refer to the future (as opposed to a situation where we are already not on speaking terms).

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  • Are you asking how best to phrase this, or about the grammaticality of "could" and "can" in this context? For what it's worth, requests to improve the phrasing of something are off-topic for this site.
    – gotube
    Commented Dec 31, 2021 at 5:50

2 Answers 2

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I would suggest a third variant:

It would be better if she said that I could never talk to her again.

Note that this is a case of reported speech, even if it is hypothetical. Therefore "can" is likely to be backshifted to "could". This is not required, but it is a common usage.

The word "that" would not be present if the statement was directly quoted, rather than reported:

  • She said, "I don't like you any more!" {direct quote}
  • She said that she doesn't like me any more. {reported speech, using "that", verb backshifted}
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Both suggestions are grammatically incorrect.

In the first sentence, 'could' is a past tense of 'can' so it is incorrect to use it to refer to the future.

In the second sentence, 'can' is in the present tense so again this is incorrect usage to refer to the future.

Correct usage:

It would be better if she said I would never speak to her again.

"Would" is used twice here. The first usage is to show willingness. The second usage is to describe an imagined situation.

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    I think you are mistaken. To my understanding, ‘could’ can refer to the future, just as ‘would’, the past tense of ‘will’, can refer to the future.
    – Alon
    Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 20:13
  • @Alon: 'could' actually doesn't have any tenses. Nevertheless could is used as the past tense of can when it describes possibility. Further, 'would' is not just the past tense of 'will', it is also an auxilary verb. That some-one could do something does not mean that they are willing to do it. This is why when asking someone to do something, would is more appropriate. Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 20:29
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    Anyway, could can refer to the future. dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/could Also, the best one would probably have been ‘should’.
    – Alon
    Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 21:09
  • "One thing you could do is ask her how she feels." "Could" can refer to the future.
    – gotube
    Commented Dec 31, 2021 at 3:34

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