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When do I use “can” or “could”?

I was doing some reading on usage of can and could. I understand that can is used when asking for ability, and could for willingness.

I would use can in the following sentence.

Can I have one apple from your box?

After reading about the usage of can and could, I am confused. Actually, this is not about my ability of taking the apple; of course, I can take (snatch) the apple even if he/she does not give it to me. So I guess according to the above rule I should be using could and not can. Using could here somehow does not sound correct to me. So I just wanted to confirm whether it is correct or not.

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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Robusto, MετάEd, JLG, Hellion Jan 25 '13 at 15:13

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I would consider using may. Consider also the difference between "can I fly?" and "may I fly?" –  kiamlaluno Jun 7 '11 at 1:30
    
@kiamlaluno: I agree that "may" is the best choice, but I heard from a TESOL professor that the usage of "can" in asking a question like, "May (can) I have that apple?" is becoming more and more common, and less wrong. It seems, "may" makes a question more formal and "can," less formal, as @Robusto points out. What do you think? –  Eri Jun 7 '11 at 1:47
    
@Eri It depends to whom you ask. There are English native speakers who consider wrong to use can when asking permission, as in "can I offer you a tea?" –  kiamlaluno Jun 7 '11 at 2:41

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

There are many ways to ask permission. Can I and could I are just two. They are fine informally, and in fact if you were to use may I in an informal situation you might come off a little bit too formal, prissy, or pedantic.

In short, you can use either. Or you could use either. Or you may use both.

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"Could I have an apple" means you are asking if you the person will permit you to have an apple. "Can I have an apple" means you are asking if it is possible for you to take an apple.

And I disagree with those suggesting may. For starters, as has been mentioned, it adds a level of formality which isn't terribly appropriate in a spoken situation. But secondly, it is possibly even more confusing than could/can. For example: in the question "May I leave the room?" is the questioner asking for permission to leave, or wondering whether or not the door is locked?

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I think "may" is too formal at times, but actually works in spoken situations when asking for permission. It also works very well in your example sentence, "May I leave the room?" In this scenario, the questioner is definitely asking for permission to leave. "Can" works here informally, and would even be more appropriate if the person is actually locked in and is asking to be let out. –  Eri Jun 7 '11 at 2:20

"Will" and "would" are more about willingness, whereas "could" is more about ability or conditional possibility Definitions on Dictionary.com.

I think, based on your example, that "can" is actually more suitable than "could" (though "may" is most accurate).

The whole reason you ask, "Can I have one apple from your box?" is because there is the possibility that you can't, since your question implies someone else has authority over the apples and can therefore tell you, "No, you can't," and you'll accept that as the case (even though you might physically be able to take an apple yourself).

"Could" implies that there is a conditional possibility rather than the ability or lack thereof to do something. For example, "I could beat you in a race, but I don't feel like it." The question, "Could I have one apple from your box?" is therefore more a hypothetical scenario of whether you can actually have one apple or not, but not necessarily that you actually will ("You could have an apple, if you paid for it first"). When people use "could," they usually mean "can" or "may" or "will" (as in, "Will you help me?") instead of "could."

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What about: "Could you please help me with those boxes?" It sounds like a real request, not a hypothetical scenario, which if correct, makes your explanation wrong. Apart of that, I like what you said and if someone can prove me I'm wrong with my example, I am willing to up-vote your answer. –  RiMMER Jun 7 '11 at 1:51
    
Since "could" also means a conditional possibility," a person might respond with, "I could, if I had more time," or "I could, but I'd rather not." You're right in that people sometimes use "could" in making a real request, but "can" or "will" is what they are really asking. I'll edit my answer to make this more clear. –  Eri Jun 7 '11 at 2:07

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