I know that giving positive answers to requests with could may sound impolite or taken as indirect negative answers -correct me if I am wrong- as follows:

A: Could you help me with moving out?

B: Yes, I could.

And I always found the conditional could used in polite requests (question form), but never in statements like the one in the business dialogue below until recently (aside from the past tense and deductions usage)

I have asked about the use of could before in the comments here, but I'm afraid I didn't explain myself as clearly as I should be. However, I found the dialogue below as a confirmation that "could" in the title is used to give the meaning in the present.

A As you know we've established a reputation in China. So, we propose that the sandwiches and cookies should be packaged and sold in our branded wrapping.

B I'm afraid we couldn't agree to that because we put everything in our own branded bag and it's company policy not to change this.

A OK, but it's important for our corporate image for your customers to recognize us as the suppliers of the goods so there should, at least, be a label with our company logo on it.

B I'm sorry but that's out of the question, I'm afraid for the same reasons I just explained.

A If that's the case, then we can't offer you exactly the same products as the ones we currently sell. There'll have to be changes.

B I see your point but we only want exactly the same goods as you sell now.

A Then, we'll have to increase the price of our products, if you can't compromise on this.

B I think we could go along with that. And what about in-shop signs quoting your company as the suppliers? I think that could be arranged...

Source: here

The question is made simple to conform with SE guidelines. Is my understanding of could in the present is correct?


As Mooseman says, "could" indicates that something is possible. "I could help you" means "I am capable of helping you". Exactly what the speaker means by this can be ambiguous. He might mean, "Yes, I am indeed capable of helping you and so I will." Or he might mean, "I am capable of helping you, but I am not going to help you because what you ask is too difficult or boring or I don't like you" etc. You would have to hear or read the larger context to know which is meant. In speech, you often rely on tone of voice. Like if someone says, "Well, I COULD help you", putting emphasis on the word "could", that likely means that he won't. But if he says "Yes, I could help you" in a normal tone, that probably means that he will help.


Almost. Could just acknowledges the possibility of something.

In a question, could can often be replaced with "is it possible that/for".

In a statement, could can often be replaced with "are able".

Also: could is not to be confused with will. For example,

I could smash my keyboard.

does not mean

I will smash my keyboard.


In many cases, using the word "could" instead of "will" or "can" implies that the action being referenced is conditional upon something that is not currently true. To use your first example:

"Could you help me with moving out?"
"I could, if I weren't going to be out of town that day."

The impolite or negative connotation comes from an inferred second clause:

"Could you help me with moving out?"
"I could, but I don't want to." (the precondition in this case is a desire to help)

This inferrence may happen automatically for a lot of people because it is commonly used as a joke or a sarcastic comeback. You might also hear it from a pedantic grammar teacher that is discouraging a student from using the word "could" in the question when "will" is more technically appropriate.

In your business negotiation example, Party B is using "could not" to express the opposite: Party A's proposal is unacceptable regardless of other conditions. To give a simplified example:

"We could agree to that, but not without further concessions from you." "We could not agree to that, and nothing you can offer us will change that."

By contrast, using "can" instead would invert the need for conditions:

"We can agree to that." (Simple agreement, nothing else required)
"We cannot agree to that." (…but maybe we could agree later, if certain conditions are met)


In business it is sometimes useful to use conditional language like this to avoid making a verbal contract. The executives or sales men will discuss the idea of the arrangement, but then pass the contract wording and details off to the law department. The use of could in "I think we could go along with that" is conditional, and the "I think" also further makes this a conditional statement not yet a firm contract.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.