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Practical English Usage 124.5 offers

We often use can when we offer to do things for people.

Can I carry your bag? (= Would you like me to ...) ~ Oh, thank you.

I can baby-sit for you this evening if you like. ~ No, it's all right, thanks.

Could is possible if we want an offer to sound less definite.

I could mend your bicycle for you, if that would help.

PEU says could makes an offer sound less definite, but in which way? Does it mean that the speaker is not quite willing to help, or he is not confident in his ability to deal with the trouble, or he is just showing politeness as he doesn't know whether his addressee really needs help, or any of them depending on the context?

I know could sounds more polite than can when used to make a request, which is borrowed from the hypothetical use of can, but I'm wondering if I can say "Could I carry your bag?" or "Could I mend your bicycle for you?" to make my offer sound more polite.

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This is a tricky English verb, it's base being "to be able to". When conjugated, there are some extended or fixed expression uses to adjust English politeness level. Here's a really good run down of can vs could:

http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/07/can-or-could/

"Could I/Can I...?" is the just the interrogative form usage and to answer your question in a round-about way: "Could I" does sound more polite, but I would consider "May I..." for those expressions you chose.

  • I read that before. But you are not really answering my question. – Kinzle B Jan 6 '15 at 3:54
  • oops I'll retype this again – Snowy Oz Jan 6 '15 at 4:09
  • Actually, I answered your second "Does it sound more polite" with "Yes", but I prefer "May I..". The politeness level is determined by the fixed usage of "could/can/may/might", as explained in the link and the blog itself answers your first question by detailing the many usages of "could". Thirdly, maybe I should have expanded on "interrogative form". "Could I" and "I could" do not have the same meaning. "I could" holds the "indefinite" meaning ("I'm not really willing to help"), but "Could I" is this fixed expression use to make an offer polite. – Snowy Oz Jan 6 '15 at 4:15

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