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I was wondering which is correct:

"Could you tell me where she worked?"

or,

"Could you tell me where she works?"

I am asking a question in the sense that I'd like to know where she is working now (currently).

I've thought that if a sentence begins with "Could", then we could end it with a verb in past tense form as well. But when I recently asked someone this question, they replied: "Worked or works?"

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  • I thought that when a sentence begins with could.... Oct 6 '14 at 13:50
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    You might be thinking of backshifting, which can be used for examples like reported speech when the main verb is in past-tense, e.g. "He told me [where she worked]", when the subordinate clause can be backshifted (usually, and usually the backshift is optional). But unfortunately, you can't do that here in your example. Even though the main clause verb ("could") could be considered to be a past-tense verb form, it might be better to consider it a polite type of usage where the verb seems to be behaving as a present-tense verb form--for this specific example.
    – F.E.
    Oct 6 '14 at 17:59
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If you use the present tense, than you are asking where she works now. If you use the past tense, you are asking where she worked at some time in the past. If you ask with the past tense, then for the question to make sense you'd have to give some indication of when. It is possible that she could still be working there, though depending on context the other person might find it necessary to specify that.

Side note: "where" in this context could mean a geographical location or the identify of the company.

"Could you tell me where she works?" "At Murphy Motors". This is where she works now.

"Could you tell me where she worked before she was married?" "She worked at Murphy Motors. And she's still working there now." Or, "She worked at Murphy Motors, but now she works at Kelly's Accounting Services."

"Could you tell me where she worked in 1978?" "She worked in New York." As I said, could also be a geographical location.

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    "Can you tell me where she worked?" and "Can you tell me where she works?" are also grammatical and look more logical, but the versions using 'could' would usually be chosen as sounding more polite, less blunt. It's an idiomatic rather than past-referencing usage of 'could'. The question marks are dropped by some people for polite requests rather than true (ie information-seeking) questions. (Here, the answer 'Yes' or 'No' is probably neither desired nor expected!) (However, it's not impossible: 'Sorry; I'm not allowed to say.') Oct 6 '14 at 14:40
  • @EdwinAshworth Quite true. Every now and then someone thinks they're hysterically funny when you ask them, "Do you know Bob's telephone number?" and they answer, "Yes, I do" and walk away. For me, the humor in this joke dissipated after about the 20th time. :-)
    – Jay
    Oct 6 '14 at 15:00
  • It still works with 'Police Squad'. Oct 6 '14 at 16:01
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    Johnny Carson once said (not an exact quote, I heard this like 20 years ago), "I was walking down the street and this guy comes up to me and asks, 'Excuse me sir. Do you know how to get to Griffith Park?' I replied, 'No, sorry, I'm not from around here'. And he said, 'Well you go north 3 blocks, turn left ...'"
    – Jay
    Oct 6 '14 at 16:21
  • Surreal. I'll look out for a CD. Oct 6 '14 at 16:23
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Could is the past form of can. It is usually used in the past such as I could not go to work. When used in the past simple, it takes the first form of the form. Could is also used to make a polite request in the present.

Moreover, when we refer to an event happening repeatedly or regularly, we use the present simple in which the first form of a verb is used. For examples, she works in a factory. To make it the past simple, which refers to an event finished in the past, we use the second form of the verb.

So the right answer is "Could you tell me where she works?". In this sentence the "could" has been used to refer to a polite request in the present.

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    "Could you tell me" is not present tense. It's a modal form. Whether one regards could as a past-tense form of can or as a distinct modal is not relevant here it's not a present-tense form.
    – tunny
    Nov 5 '14 at 19:13
  • Tunny, thanks. Actually, I should say that could has been used for a polite request in the present.
    – Khan
    Nov 6 '14 at 17:47
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The answer comes down to the context and your understanding of whether she is still working:

"Could you tell me where she worked?"

implies that she no is no longer working.

"Could you tell me where she works?"

on the other hand, is the correct usage if she is still working. As she is currently working, the second is the correct choice.

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  • Your first explanation is possibly incorrect. It depends on what preceded the question. For instance, "I'm looking for Jane Smith, who is listed as living next door 3 years ago. Could you tell me where she worked?" might be answered "She worked for XYZ Corp, and as far as I know she still does." The question does not imply that she no longer works at her old job, only that the questioner is ignorant of her current situation. Mar 6 '15 at 23:34

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