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  1. #1
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    basic english grammar q: could/can

    what are the issues, correctness, difference of meaning, of these two similar phrases?:

    It could go anywhere.

    It can go anywhere.

    i thought to start with could is for past tense use but that's just one of its uses i think. e.g. for requests: "Could you tell me where the bank is please?" could has nothing to do with the past.

    i think they're both correct but what about their meanings; how do their meanings differ? (and i guess it may come down to a personal view, not something that's written down as a formal correctness i suppose). is it a meaningless question without the phrases' context?

    to start with i thought this: the could version implies "it" is not in control by you, the reader, or some other person / group of people; "it" has a mind of its own (a bird for example). and the can version is more in control by the reader/person/people. but then no, can can be equally random or known and conrolled, so i think that's rubbish now. i have no idea. that's why i'm asking.

    any opinions'd be much aprpeciated.

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    SitePoint Addict palgrave's Avatar
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    Don't know about the grammatical side of it, but to me, "It could go anywhere" implies it's not meant to go anywhere, whereas, "It can go anywhere" implies unlimited capabilities with which your product is comfortable.

    My 2p.

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    very interesting.

    (i didn't mention product though. that's not necessarily the "it" at all. "it" could/can be anthing.)

    thanks for your 2p

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    1. Simple past of can.
    Before I was blind, I could see very well.
    2. Used to politely ask for permission to do something
    Could I borrow your coat?
    3. Used to politely ask for someone else to do something
    Could you proof-read this email?
    4. Used to show the possibility that something might happen.
    We could rearrange the time if you like.
    5. Used to suggest something.
    You could try adding more salt to the soup.

    Related terms


    Retrieved from "http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/could"

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    SitePoint Addict BlazeMiskulin's Avatar
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    I'm not sure if this is part of the defined usage, but common usage/interpretation of the two is often a matter of degree.

    "I could go anywhere" is passive (not in the grammatical sense, but in the connotation).

    "I could but I'm probably not going to."
    "I could but I don't want to."

    Whereas "I can go anywhere" is more definitive and aggressive (again in connotation only).

    "I can go anywhere, and I will when I want to"
    "I can go anywhere, and you can't stop me"

    The choice sets the tone of the statement. This is probably more significant in fiction, where tone has a greater weight in explaining motives of the character, than in articles or other non-fiction where the intent is to simply pass along information.
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    Quote Originally Posted by r937 View Post
    1. Simple past of can.
    Before I was blind, I could see very well.
    ....
    ok thanks, but using that information, or any other, how would you answer this?:

    say you met someone who told you about their business, which they're in the process of starting up, based on an idea they've had. say you were going to say one of the two phrases this question is about, about their company/idea to them, you'd say "It could go anywhere" not "It can go anywhere" i think. meaning (taking it positively) it has great but unknown potential. it would sound odd i think to say "It can go anywhere". why is the could version better than the can version in that situation (if you agree it is that is)?

    and then, similar to what palgrave said, if you were talking about say a rugged off road vehicle such as a land rover, it'd be odd to say "It could go anywhere" but not "It can go anywhere", or at least the can version is better and more appropriate i think. again, why? i can't see/understand the difference even having read the info on those wiki pages.

    thanks.

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    Quote Originally Posted by BlazeMiskulin View Post
    I'm not sure if this is part of the defined usage, but common usage/interpretation of the two is often a matter of degree.

    "I could go anywhere" is passive (not in the grammatical sense, but in the connotation).

    "I could but I'm probably not going to."
    "I could but I don't want to."

    Whereas "I can go anywhere" is more definitive and aggressive (again in connotation only).

    "I can go anywhere, and I will when I want to"
    "I can go anywhere, and you can't stop me"

    The choice sets the tone of the statement. This is probably more significant in fiction, where tone has a greater weight in explaining motives of the character, than in articles or other non-fiction where the intent is to simply pass along information.
    right, passive vs. definitive and aggressive is similar to what i thought (edit: and to what palgrave thought; they said 'but to me, "It could go anywhere" implies it's not meant to go anywhere' which would include for example leaving your land rover unlocked and having it stolen). yes i think this question is more about people's general perception rather than formal definitions.

    excellent, thanks.

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    <caveat>English is not my native language.</caveat>

    'It could go anywhere'
    This, to me, indicates an uncertainty, perhaps caused by circumstances outside one's control. Like, 'Depending on <external factor>, anything could happen.'

    'It can go anywhere'
    This indicates possibilties, not risks, to me: 'Depending on what I choose to do, I can make anything I want happen.'

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    yup, thanks. it does seem to be about being in control (can), or the lack of (could).

    great, thanks.

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    SitePoint Enthusiast TYPELiFE's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by palgrave View Post
    Don't know about the grammatical side of it, but to me, "It could go anywhere" implies it's not meant to go anywhere, whereas, "It can go anywhere" implies unlimited capabilities with which your product is comfortable.

    My 2p.
    exactly, it could go anywhere implies that it can go anywhere, but it didn't.

    it can go anywhere implies that it has unlimited power to go anywhere

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    SitePoint Evangelist old_expat's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by johnyboy View Post
    ok thanks, but using that information, or any other, how would you answer this?:

    say you met someone who told you about their business, which they're in the process of starting up, based on an idea they've had. say you were going to say one of the two phrases this question is about, about their company/idea to them, you'd say "It could go anywhere" not "It can go anywhere" i think. meaning (taking it positively) it has great but unknown potential. it would sound odd i think to say "It can go anywhere". why is the could version better than the can version in that situation (if you agree it is that is)?
    Part of the problem is ambiguity. Look at each word. Each word is ambiguous. So the entire sentence can be intrepreted to just about anything any reader can imagine.

    If you are writing this, I would suggest a completely different usage and approach.

    "It could go anywhere."

    "While Stratosoft's marketing strategy is untested, the startup could dominate the graphic design industry in the next decade."

    and then, similar to what palgrave said, if you were talking about say a rugged off road vehicle such as a land rover, it'd be odd to say "It could go anywhere" but not "It can go anywhere", or at least the can version is better and more appropriate i think. again, why? i can't see/understand the difference even having read the info on those wiki pages.
    thanks.
    "It can go anywhere."

    "The Moon Rover X-100's suspension makes traversing even the most rugged landscapes not only possible, but fun."

  12. #12
    SitePoint Evangelist old_expat's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by johnyboy View Post
    yup, thanks. it does seem to be about being in control (can), or the lack of (could).

    great, thanks.
    Neither word defines control. Only context can do that.

    "I can accommodate you, whatever you decide."

    Maybe you mean "being capable of".

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    SitePoint Wizard megamanXplosion's Avatar
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    Sometimes the word can is used when the person means may. When asking for permission to do something—if they may do it—many will use the word can instead. This is grammatically incorrect. Be cautious of this grammatical error because it is quite common.

    As for the correct uses...

    When considering a single situation in the present or future, the word can is used to denote capability. Example: I can go shopping tomorrow; she can call me sometime; you can come over right now.

    When considering a single situation in the past, the word could is used to denote capability. Example: I could have gone shopping yesterday; She could have called me sometime, but she did not; you could have come over fifteen minutes ago, but apparently you think I am less worthy of your time than your pizza!

    The word could can also be used in a future-tense to either show the mindstate of the person using it when considering possibilities, situations that might or might not come true. For example: it could snow tomorrow, preventing my shopping spree, but I don't know if it shall; she could call me sometime, and I hope she does; you could come over right now, but whether or not you are allowed is another issue altogether.

    Taking your original sentences...

    It could go anywhere = It might [in the future] come here or go there, but I cannot predict where. Or, it might have [in the past] gone here or there, but it went there.

    It can go anywhere = It has the capability—the freedom of movement—to come here or go there [but I'm telling the remote-controlled car to come here].

    These small distinctions can, generally, be thrown out the window when interpreting someone else's words. As we all know, the average person doesn't care much if they are using a word gramatically incorrectly—this is exemplified, I think, by the continued use of the word may—a word denoting permissibility—when they mean might—a word denoting probability. (Am I the only one who feels as if he heard a blackboard being scratched when those words are confused?)

    If you are still confused by the differences but you were hoping to use them correctly in your own writing, fear not! You don't need them. There are other words in the English language that will properly cover your meaning. The words can and could have become so confused it might be best for everyone to dump them into the verbal trash bin.


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