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Questions:

Can "couldn't be used to say something is impossible in the present or future? Are examples 1 and 3 correct? And do Examples 1 and 3 sound softer or less direct than examples 2 and 4?

The following are examples I've made up that basically try to say something is impossible in the present or future.

  1. The professor has gone to another country. My classmates couldn't meet him. (future)
  2. The professor has gone to another country. My classmates won't be able to meet him. (future)
  3. He just started learning Karate last week. He couldn't beat a blackbelt. (present)
  4. He just started learning Karate last week. He can't beat a blackbelt. (present)
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    "My classmates couldn't meet him. (future)". No, that is past, not future.
    – Lambie
    Mar 10, 2022 at 14:47
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    "My classmates cannot meet him." (present) "My classmates couldn't meet him if they needed to." (conditional) Mar 10, 2022 at 17:06
  • @KateBunting I think sometimes "couldn't" can be used the same way as the sentence in your comment, but without the "if" (because it is understood). If that is true, does that kind of usage create a more polite tone towards something in the present or the future? Can Examples 1 and 3 be interpreted that way?
    – vincentlin
    Mar 11, 2022 at 13:58
  • Yes, it can be used without the 'if' clause when the context is already clear (the possibility of the students meeting the prof. in person has been mentioned/implied). Mar 11, 2022 at 17:34
  • @KateBunting Some learning websites say "The typhoon could get worse" and "I couldn’t possibly accept the invitation" express a future and present possibility. What about them? Are they actually conditional sentences whose if-clauses are omitted because they can be understood? Does using "could" in a conditional sense, whether there is an if-clause or not, make the statement softer and less direct?
    – vincentlin
    Mar 11, 2022 at 19:50

1 Answer 1

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If it's just about expressing something in the present of future I'd go with "can/can't" (presence or in general which includes future) or "will/won't be able to" (future).

Examples 1 and 3 are past tense. Though they can also be meant in subjunctive mood: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/getting-in-the-subjunctive-mood

I wish I could make it to the appointment.

So probably expressing your wish to do something might be more polite then just saying you can't make it. But if it's just about saying that it's impossible in the present or future to do something then your probably on the safer side just using the present or future tense of the verb.

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