I've read that 'can and could' can be used to imply "to be able to do something in present and past time reference, but sometimes I'm confused to use them. The most confusing situation is as follows:

Context: When I'm not sure that I/he/she/it/they can do or able to do something in present or I/he/she/they don't want someone to do something fully or when hedging/softening the sentences.

  • you/I could write an essay.
  • I/you could go to school.
  • I/you could re-rewrite this sentence.
  • I could call you a daughter.

these sentences imply present ability or past ability? I think they imply both present and past ability, but I don't understand their real meanings.

*can we use 'could' to talk distancing ourselves what we say or when we want to be indirect of what we say?

  • You need to consider usage in context. You have only example sentences. Jun 25, 2016 at 14:47
  • @ Damkerng,I've included the situation or context in my question itself
    – yubraj
    Jun 25, 2016 at 14:53
  • 3
    Possible duplicate of "Can" vs. "Could" for bringing examples
    – Cardinal
    Jun 25, 2016 at 17:09
  • Are you asking about "can" vs "could", or about present vs past, or what? Jun 25, 2016 at 17:27

2 Answers 2


Historically, "could" is the past of "can", and it sometimes still gets used that way:

When I stood up, I could see the clock.

But often, it is used for non-past sentences where the possibility is tentative and uncertain.


I can speak to her.

is definite: I have the ability to, and probably I will do so.

I could speak to her.

is less definite: I have the ability, but I'm not sure if I'm going to.

It's similar to the way we use past-tense verbs for irrealis (or "counterfactual") conditionals (the so-called "second conditional"), like "If I saw her, I would know".


The modal could is the past of can.

We usually use could + infinitive without to to talk about the past ability.

But sometimes, we use could + infinitive to express the possibility in the present and future.

So the sentences presented, depending on the context, may mean ability in the past as well as the possibility in the present and the future. For example:

I could write an essay = I had the ability to write an essay or it is/will be possible for me to write an essay.

Now that she is 3 years old, she could go to school = it's possible for her to go to school.

When she will be 3 years old, she could go to school = it will be possible for her to go to school.

When she was 3 years old, she could go to school = she had the ability to go to school.

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