Mini-Lesson Monday, Lesson #188 (Part 2): Considering ‘Can’, ‘Could’, and ‘Be Able To’ through Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’

📘 ‘He seemed so brave and innocent, that although I had not proposed the contest, I felt but a gloomy satisfaction in my victory. Indeed, I go so far as to hope that I regarded myself while dressing as a species of savage young wolf or other wild beast. However, I got dressed, darkly wiping my sanguinary face at intervals, and I said, “Can I help you?” and he said “No thankee,” and I said “Good afternoon,” and he said “Same to you.”’

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861)

This is the second part of our Lesson on the different uses of ‘can’ and ‘could’ in English – at least 6 in all!

📝 THE DIFFERENT USES OF CAN / COULD:

✏️ ABILITY

‘be able to’ has the same meaning as can or could in this sense. It is a flexible verb form.

One observation however: ‘be able to’ sometimes refers to a particular ability at a particular time. On the other hand, ‘can’ or ‘could’ refers to a habitual ability over a period of time. Here are two examples:

📘 ‘And how should I be able to answer, dodged in that way, in a strange place, on an empty stomach!’

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

📘 ‘I could answer this inquiry with a better heart than I had been able to find for the other question, and I said I was quite willing.’

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

📘 “Well, then, understand once for all that I never shall or can be comfortable— or anything but miserable— there, Biddy!— unless I can lead a very different sort of life from the life I lead now.”

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

..

✏️ POSSIBILITY

Both can and could can describe a possibility in the present, while could can describe a possibility in the future as well.

Add to this the fact that there are strong possibilities (or probabilities – see Lesson #183) and weak possibilities. We use can to indicate a strong possibility:

📘 “I can be well recommended by all the neighbours, and I hope I can be industrious and patient, and teach myself while I teach others.”

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

📘 “I can recommend it for your purpose, sir, because it really is extra super.”

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

📘 “I have never shown any weakness that I can charge myself with.”

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

📘 “Tell me not it cannot be; I tell you this is him!”

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

We use could to indicate a weaker, more uncertain possibility:

📘 ‘The fashion of his dress could no more come in its way when he spoke these words than it could come in its way in Heaven.’

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

When indicating past possibilities, we use could have + past participles. These can describe something that might have happened in the past, but also something in the past that actually didn’t happen.

📘 ‘I do not think he could have been saved. Whereas, the portable property certainly could have been saved.’ (might have happened in the past – uncertainty)

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (emphases mine)

📘 It was the worst course I could have taken, because it gave Pumblechook the opportunity he wanted.

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (emphases mine)

..

✏️ PERMISSION

We use can and could to ask permission either formally or informally. Perhaps you can already guess, but could – being more polite, weaker, and less direct – is used in formal situations where we do not want to sound too upfront.

📘 “Could you commission any friend of yours to bring me a pair, if you’ve no further use for ’em?”

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

📘 “Right! He was not to come down till he saw us. Can you see his signal?”

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

✍️ However it is important to know that when you answer this kind of question – whether it was asked formally or informally with a could or a can – you always answer with the form can or cannot (not could/could not). If someone asks you, ‘could I borrow your pen?’ and you answer ‘yes you could’, it gives the impression that you are just confirming their ability to borrow but not giving your permission.

But in order not to sound rude in a formal situation (especially if your answer would be in the negative – ‘no, you cannot’), try to answer with something like this:

  • I’m afraid not.
  • Unfortunately it isn’t possible.
  • Sorry, not at this time.

💡 Subtle differences, but quite important all the same!

..

✏️ SUGGESTIONS

Remember how could is used when we are talking about weaker possibilities? Could is also more polite because it is less direct. For this reason we use it in suggestions.

📘 “Could I make a guess, I wonder,” said the Convict, “at your income since you come of age! As to the first figure now. Five?”

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

📘 ‘After I had pondered a little over this encouraging sentiment, I asked Mr. Jaggers if I could send for a coach? He said it was not worth while, I was so near my destination; Wemmick should walk round with me, if I pleased.’

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

..

✏️ OFFERS

When we talked about weak and strong possibilities, we mentioned how can indicates a stronger probability, and could a weaker or more polite possibility.

The same can be applied to offers: weaker offers use could, while stronger-sounding offers use can.

📘 ‘However, I got dressed, darkly wiping my sanguinary face at intervals, and I said, “Can I help you?” and he said “No thankee,” and I said “Good afternoon,” and he said “Same to you.”’

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

..

✏️ REQUESTS

Just as with permissions, there are formal and informal ways to request something from someone.

✍️ Formal requests use could, and informal requests use can.

📘 “Could you commission any friend of yours to bring me a pair, if you’ve no further use for ’em?”

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

I hope this has been helpful either as new information or as a good revision of what you already know and just need to keep practicing! As always, I am happy to help you with one or several lessons if you want someone to correct and guide you a bit further – you can contact me through the form on the homepage, and I will get back to you as soon as I can.

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by Joyce E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2021)