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I wanted to stress the importance of being bilingual to a friend, so I said "I wouldn't be able to speak to my parents if I couldn't speak Spanish".

Is this grammatically correct? I've been saying stuff like this for a long time, but it suddenly sounded awkward today. I'm not sure if I should use "would" all the way.

  • I think its OK, anyway this question may help explain it. “I would love to if I can” vs. “I would love to if I could” The first phrase indicates possibility, the second phrase indicates ability. – user485 Apr 10 '13 at 1:36
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    I wouldn't call that ungrammatical; I think you could put both words in one sentence without causing a problem :^) That said, "didn't" might be a better word than "couldn't", but such a change isn't necessary. – J.R. Apr 10 '13 at 1:37
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    In fact, if you were to use wouldn't throughout with a naive replacement ("I wouldn't be able to speak to my parents if I wouldn't speak Spanish"), it no longer makes any sense, or at least the meaning changes. To say that you "wouldn't" speak Spanish is not to say that you were unable, but rather that you refused to speak Spanish. – Ken Bellows Apr 10 '13 at 14:24
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The sentence is grammatical, but it has a common problem: it's not clearly stated. I had trouble understanding it and had to read it and the question a few times before finally understanding what it wants to say:

If I {couldn't / didn't / weren't able to [CHOOSE ONE]} speak Spanish, I {wouldn't be able to / couldn't [CHOOSE ONE]} speak to my parents.

If you want to emphasize the importance of being bilingual in this case, revise the clauses and focus on your ability to speak Spanish as well as English. Then give the reason why it's important for you to be bilingual.

Word order matters. Which is another way of saying that style matters.

The problem with much of what we say and write is that it's not clear because the syntax is a little screwy, the word choices are less than optimal because the words either aren't precise enough or because they're ambiguous, the word order makes the sentence ambiguous, or the focus is on the wrong part of the sentence.

  • Agreed. The tenses are correct, but the sentence might be better stated: "I can only speak to my parents because I can speak Spanish." – Nick Dixon Apr 23 '13 at 15:42
  • I'd have to write: "I can speak to my parents only because I can speak Spanish." Word order matters to me, but I know it doesn't matter to most other native Anglophones, until it's time to gore their ox. And, yes, I know that this word order is ancient English word order used by the literate & illiterate alike. I'm not an egalitarian; I make aesthetic judgments; & I don't much care how Middle English was spoken or what Jane Austen wrote. – user264 Apr 23 '13 at 15:53
  • You are correct. I was being sloppy and colloquial. But that's my style. – Nick Dixon Apr 23 '13 at 15:57
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    @NickDixon: I'm not "correct", just opinionated. I try hard to have a consistent voice & a distinctive style, not because I think I'm a wordsmith or a creative writer (I'm not, just a technical writer & editor). The placement of "only" is one of my pet peeves. I'm in a small minority, but that's OK. It's all personal preference, so who am I to criticize? I state my opinions because sometimes I don't know what I think until I write it down. Your sentence is perfectly clear & natural to most Anglophones. To me, writing is artificial, unlike speech, which is natural. That's a world of difference. – user264 Apr 23 '13 at 16:28
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It’s grammatical and, to me, perfectly clear as it is. If there is any risk of misunderstanding, it would be minimised in the context of the conversation.

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