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When should we use “can”, “could”, “will”, “would”?

I am not a native English speaker and this would/could thing always bothers me. Please give some example + explanation on this. Sorry if the question is too naive.

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I didn't notice that, but Neil's answer here is more informative –  eagleye Feb 13 '11 at 22:39
    
Also see May you please explain this? –  TrevorD Sep 11 '13 at 23:09
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marked as duplicate by kiamlaluno, Robusto, Marthaª, RegDwigнt, Kosmonaut Feb 14 '11 at 1:28

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

"Would" and "could" really cover different situations, although both can be used to make a request.

"Could" generally denotes:

  • Possibility (either "basic" posibility on a particular occasion, or "supposed" possibility): "It could rain this afternoon", "They could be planning an attack"
  • Equivalent of "can" (possibility) in the indirect speech: "He said he could come".
  • To formulate a request: "Could you get the shopping for me?"

Note that "could" doesn't tend to denote a possibility that is "generally true"; in this case, "can" is used (contrast "it could rain this afternoon" with "it can rain heavily this time of year").

On the other hand, "would" generally denotes:

  • The result of a condition being fulfilled: "I would spend more time with my children, but I have to work"; "it would be great if you could come"
  • The notion of future-in-the-past, effectively the equivalent of "will" in indirect speech: "He said he would come"
  • In the negative, to denote a refusal in the past: "He wouldn't help me" = "He didn't want to help me"; "The car wouldn't start" = "The car refused to start". But note that this is just in the negative: people don't say "*He would help me" to mean "He offered/accepted to help me".
  • To formulate a request: "Would you come here a minute?"
  • In slightly literary use, an equivalent of "used to": "On Saturdays, she would spend the whole day staring out of the window"
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Very helpful but.. 1. Could (why not Can?) you get the shopping for me? (I guess it seems like order?) 2. Would (why not will?) you come here a minute? 3. Can I use would/could in 1 & 2 interchangeably? –  eagleye Feb 13 '11 at 22:38
    
(1) All other things being equal, I guess "could"/"would" sound a bit politer than "can"-- though of course much depends on tone of voice and other wording. (2) You can use "will" too in this case: it sounds more insistent than "would". (3) Yes, I'd say "could"/"would" are more or less interchangeable in these types of requests. –  Neil Coffey Feb 14 '11 at 0:44
    
Thank you for your help –  eagleye Feb 14 '11 at 17:11
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"If I could, I surely would..." -Aerosmith song.

Could refers to ability while Would refers to willingness. Sometimes you can do something, but are not willing to do it, for example.

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The words also appear in the lyrics of a (different) Simon and Garfunkel song (El Condor Pasa) :-) –  psmears Feb 13 '11 at 15:04
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