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Which one is the correct?

  1. The worst thing he can be called is a coward.
  2. The worst thing he could be called is a coward.

I think it's the second one because it's about possibility in the future; on the other hand, "can" might suit better in a general statement like: "In my culture, the worst thing one can be called is a coward."

Is my analysis correct?

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  • Without knowing which meaning is required, either is possible. "Can" relates to present affairs and "could" has a greater element of the hypothetical or future.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 4 at 10:02
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    Both are fine, and in practice would mostly be equivalent and interchangeable. Some people might claim a nuance of difference (in "immediacy"?), but offhand I can't think of any context where the choice would actually change the meaning in a noticeable way. Note that The worst thing he could be called was a coward really has a different meaning, and The worst thing he can be called was a coward is invalid. Commented Mar 4 at 11:36
  • Idiomatically, we're much more likely to use "conditional" could in such contexts, simply because the entire reason for framing such an utterance is the speaker doesn't know what it is. So he's speculating - as in It could be true, but I don't know for sure, where we never use can. Commented Mar 4 at 11:45

1 Answer 1

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Correct. "Can" refers to the present state of things. "Could" refers to the most extreme possible future state.

That said, they are often used interchangeably.

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