1. whether a sentence is truth-neutral or truth-committed often depends on factors other than the choice of verbal construction. In I’m surprised that your wife should object, the effect of the main verb is to cancel out the neutrality of the should + Infinitive construction, with the result that we clearly understand from this sentence that the wife does object. There is hence no logical difference, in many cases, between should + Infinitive and the simple Indicative form objects. This is not to say, however, that there is no difference in feeling. In I’m surprised that your wife should object, it is the ‘very idea of it’ that surprises me; in I’m surprised that your wife objects, I am surprised by the objection itself, which I take to be a known ‘fact’.
    The meaning swings in the opposite direction (from truth-commitment to truth-neutrality) through the influence of verbs such as believe and suppose:
    I believe (that) his mother is dead. | I suppose (that) you’re waiting for my autograph
    Because of the essential element of uncertainty in the meanings of these verbs, a that-clause that would elsewhere be truth-committed becomes truth-neutral. The same applies to adjectives such as possible and likely.
    We could go on to note that the primary modals (e.g. can, may, will) also express an element of uncertainty, and so belong to the truth-neutral category. However, they express more specific meanings, such as ‘possibility’ and ‘obligation’, whereas the forms with ‘theoretical’ meaning discussed here – the Infinitive, the Subjunctive and ‘putative’ should – express truth-neutrality in its most generalised form.

  2. The difference between ‘arrangement’ and ‘intention’ is a very slight one; so be going to + Infinitive could be substituted for the Present Progressive in all these examples.

  3. Be going to implies that the conditions for the future event already exist. However, will could replace be going to in these two examples with little difference of meaning.

  4. Without an adverbial, a time in the near future rather than remoter future is generally intended: one could insert the adverb just or soon in these sentences to make the imminence explicit.

-- Leech, Geoffrey N. 2004. Meaning and the English Verb. Harlow, England: Pearson/Longman.

Do they indicate conditional (hypothetical) possiblities or factual possiblities in these examples?

I have come across them a lot in this book as well as in ELL answers. From my understanding, may or can is used a lot in such context of giving useful information.

I wonder if the preterite form makes these statements more tentative or informal or what.

  • Well, IMHO, I think my question is specific: the particular usage in the particular examples. Sir, did I violate the rules? @FumbleFingers
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 14:50
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    Imagining myself learning Mandarin Chinese some time in the future, I can see a similar problem looming ahead for me. For example, when should I use 吧? Some people state that it makes a request less direct, some say it's used for agreement, some say it's used for confirmation. But when will it mean what? Are the lines between different meanings of 吧 clear-cut? I can't tell. However, I'm preparing myself to be flexible and will try to understand 吧 as 吧 is and to avoid putting its meanings in rigid smaller boxes of categories. I hope you'll choose the same for English modals. Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 1:47
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    @Zhanlong: I take it by "preterite form", you mean past tense rather than present tense. No - in your examples it's just a slightly formal / pompous / dated / academic stylistic choice to use could rather than can. It doesn't significantly convey more "tentativeness" (but as indicated, could is slightly more "formal"). Note that the first usage is completely different to the other three, in that it says they "could" do something (implying, "or maybe not"), then they go right ahead and do it (no uncertainty whatsoever there, then! :) Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 2:42
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    I agree. That depends more on the intonation of a speaker. @DamkerngT.
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 4:05
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    I've reversed my original closevote into a reopen vote, and deleted my first comment since it's no longer appropriate following edits to the question. Some other comments are therefore now redundant. Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 14:20

2 Answers 2


Per my comments, it's really just a stylistic choice to use "preterite" (past tense) could rather than present tense can in all 4 examples. It doesn't significantly affect any "tentative/ forceful" nuances.

In the first example, could is a largely redundant stylistic usage. It's a bit dated/formal/academic (I might almost say pompous). The normal meaning (possibility) doesn't really apply here; it's not that the authors could/might go on to note [blah blah] - the very sentence that tells us they could do that really does do it!

The other three usages just express the standard possible, optional, alternative sense. In every case, it's a matter of You could do A, or you could do B (where #1 is We're able to do A, so we're going to do it).

It's an extremely fine point, but one could make the argument that using a modal in #1 (as opposed to "We will note that...", or just "We note that...") implies the authors could potentially run into difficulties with the proposition that "primary modals" are "truth-neutral", in which case one could say there's a hint of "tentativeness" in the advancing of a proposition there. A bit like this paragraph, really.

  • "A hint of tentativeness" is a good way of putting it. I've been ruminating on this question for a while, and while a bluntly factual academic text is clearly using could for factual possibility, it's been very difficult for me to avoid projecting an equivocal tone on to the examples when reading. Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 4:38
  • @Esoteric: I haven't read the book, and I can't access the full text online, so I don't know exactly what they might mean by "primary modals" are "truth-neutral". I don't see how "It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass" could be considered "truth-neutral" (that's the Word of God, and He sounds pretty definite to me there). But I suppose the authors know what they're talking about, and that either they've already defined "primary modals" so as not to include that shall, or their "truth-neutral" is a subtle concept. Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 12:02
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    @Zhanlong: Absolutely! But that's only sometimes. Other times "I could" means "I'm definitely able to", rather than the more tentative "It's possible I might be able to". And in your cited usage it means something slightly different again. They're definitely able to "note that point" (we know that, because they did) - but the "tentativeness" is more vaguely extended, since they go on in the next sentence ("However,...") to suggest that what they're doing is not 100% defensible against all counterarguments. Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 15:16
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    @Kinzle: Take "We could put a man on Mars within a decade". The words as written can be interpreted as (1) "We already have the ability [and may follow through and actually do it]", or simply (2) "It is feasible we will do this [no implication as to whether we have the capability yet]". In speech, the second sense would often be encouraged by placing stress on the word could. As a rule, it's simply a matter of context which sense applies, but there's also "We could be able to put a man on Mars within a decade" to get that specific meaning across. Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 14:29
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    @Kinzle: Those are all possible "nuances", yes. There are others, including, for example, The US could bomb North Korea back into the Stone Age (with heavy stress on could), which would normally be understood to mean that although they're able to do this (they have the ability), the chances of them actually doing it are very low (perhaps even zero). Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 16:13

In retrospect, I think I asked a pretty simple question.

The use of could in all these examples is conditional:

(If we wanted to,) we could go on to note that...

(If we wanted to,) will could replace be going to...

(If one wanted to,) one could insert the adverb just or soon...

(If the US wanted to,) the US could bomb North Korea back into the Stone Age.

Can is also possible in these cases and sounds more definite:

We can go on to note that.. = It is possible for us to go on to note that...

One can insert the adverb just or soon.. = It is possible for one to insert the adverb just or soon...

Feel free to correct me if I'm inaccurate. :)

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