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When do I use “can” & “could”?

In a company, the HR asked me:

"Could you please sign here".

I want to know whether it is correct or "Can " should be used or simply "Please sign here" is sufficient.

When to ideally use Could.

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If I want to find out whether something is possible in the first place. No action required afterwards. "Could you climb a mountain?" as in "Would you be able to climb a mountain." If I ask somebody to do something using "could", the most common answer is "Yes", with no action following. –  malach Oct 22 '10 at 13:39
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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt, Ralph Rickenbach, Mehper C. Palavuzlar, ShreevatsaR, b.roth Oct 24 '10 at 11:47

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1 Answer

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Strictly logically speaking, asking "Can you sign here?" would be sufficiently answered by "yes" with no further action required. "Yes, I am able to." However, we generally understand that as a request in English, so we'll say "Yes" and sign. (I think in Russian, it's more common to use the imperative: "Sign here, please", and if you say "Can you sign here?" they'll say "of course" in a surprised way, but then do it anyway).

Anyway, saying "Could you please sign here?" instead is just a way to make the sentence more polite by making it less direct. The same happens in French - instead of saying "I want a cheese sandwich" at a restaurant (je veux), you say "I would like a cheese sandwich" (je voudrais) - again using the conditional, similar to English.

So, both are socially correct, the latter is more polite, and technically speaking you can say "Yes," do nothing, and look like a douche.

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