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Recently I encountered a book written by F. R. Palmer, Modality and the English Modals. I found this book very enligtening. To my surprise, his thorough treatment covers most of my questions on modal verbs in ELL. Palmer knew well what would confuse language learners, even native speakers and took a refreshingly universal approach to address a variety of problem cases on modal verbs. Based on several well-accepted corpuses, his research was strongly supported and compelling.

As I went through this book, I found the following excerpt a bit confusing:

5.3.5 Unreality

Could and couldn't commonly occur not to indicate past time, but to suggest unreality, usually in what can be seen as an incomplete conditional ('. . . if I wanted to', '. . . if things were otherwise'):

I couldn't do anything like that you see, I mean, I couldn't paint an ordinary sort of portrait.

I know I could be average, but I couldn't be very good and I could never do anything new.

A Gannet could land and take off easily enough in half the runway.

In all these it would be possible to paraphrase with would/wouldn't be able to. There are, in fact, plenty of examples of would/wouldn't be able to, but with little difference of meaning:

There are season tickets, but you wouldn't be able to commute.

Would Professor Worth be able to sign some cheques this afternoon?

We would be able to have a more rational allocation of resources.

I guess this book is not intended for an ELL so Palmer didn't provide too much context for these examples.

Without context I have difficulty grasping how the proposed protasis ('. . . if I wanted to', '. . . if things were otherwise') relates to them. If I were to reword them, I would just use can/be able to over could/would be able to.

The first one might be the easiest: I'm totally a layman for art; (even if I tried my best,) I couldn't paint a simplest portrait.

Can you please add a few more corresponding contexts to other five examples to show how the proposed protasis would convey the intended meaning?


The Fairey Gannet was a British carrier-borne aircraft of the post-Second World War era developed for the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm.

  • In my humble opinion, you're looking at the wrong end. It looks to me that Palmer explains the examples from the usage to the meaning. Each intended meaning implies a scenario, of course, but that is subjective (in how the speaker thinks of the scenario and chooses to use the most appropriate pattern in their mind). This doesn't mean that for given a scenario, we have to use one and only one pattern. In other words, your alternative would be correct too, if it's your intended meaning, and you chose a pattern and usage appropriately. – Damkerng T. Sep 14 '15 at 3:31
  • I agree, but without contexts they are open to be interpreted. It is more likely that could would be taken to mean "It is possible that" rather than "would be able to" or "can and would do …". I just want to know what kind of context could match the proposed use of could. It's an open question, but a very specific one. :) @DT – Kinzle B Sep 14 '15 at 4:32
  • In my opinion, could is closer to It would be possible that than It is possible that, but I guess this wouldn't help you much. :( – Damkerng T. Sep 14 '15 at 4:38
  • The semantics is very clear, but the pragmatics matters more. I suggest you downloading one. It's very good read. You would read lots of probing questions which have been asked by me in ELL. @DT :) – Kinzle B Sep 14 '15 at 4:50
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Can and can't would be used more in relation to the actual conditions as they currently stand. For example: "(With my current level of physical fitness,) I can't run three miles without stopping." Could and couldn't are used for hypothetical situations that are not currently the case. E.g., "(Even if I trained every day for the next six months,) I couldn't run three miles without stopping."

I will also give protases for the examples in your question.

If I were able to practice guitar for eight hours a day, seven days a week, I know I could be average, but I couldn't be very good and I could never do anything new.

If its pilot were trying to minimize the amount of runway used, the Gannet could land and take off easily enough in half the runway.

Note that in the above example, the Gannet's capabilities are fixed, and it's only the situation that is hypothetical. If the Gannet "could" do something in a specific, hypothetical case, and nothing is changed on the Gannet, then it also "can" do the same thing in a general case. So the following is also implied to be true:

The Gannet can land and take off easily enough in half of a runway.

The indefinite article is required before "runway" because it is not a specific case. In reality, there would have to be a qualifier for runway (e.g., "standard length runway" or "2000 foot runway"), since without a qualifier, "a runway" means "any possible runway" which clearly wouldn't be true for a runway that is half the length of "the runway" in the specific hypothetical example.

There are season tickets, but you (wouldn't be able to/couldn't) commute if you bought them.

If I left them on her desk, would Professor Worth be able to sign some cheques this afternoon?

If we changed our budgeting process for the next fiscal year, we would be able to have a more rational allocation of resources.

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I think what Palmer's text is saying that in the phrases, the "if I wanted to"/"if things were otherwise" is implied and not explicitly stated.

I couldn't do anything like that (if I wanted to) you see, I mean, I couldn't paint an ordinary sort of portrait (even if I wanted to).

So something like:

I couldn't stop thinking about him.

isn't necessarily can in the past tense, but part of a conditional phrase where the other half is understood and not written/said explicitly.

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