I tend to use the following construction often in my e-mails:

It would be great if you could...

However my German colleague repeatedly reminds me that according to the rules he was taught, using "if" together with "could" in the way I do is strictly speaking incorrect. I am however certain that this construction is quite common (see here) and can often convey willingness rather than ability.

Is the above construction strictly speaking incorrect, and is there a better replacement for it?

  • 1
    Related: May you please explain this? – TrevorD Aug 13 '13 at 11:55
  • 1
    Remember that “if he could” is the same as “if he were able”. Since there is nothing wrong with “If he were able to finish today, that would be good”, there is similarly nothing wrong with your formulation. There is a common German blunder of using would in both halves of a conditional in English, but this is not it. – tchrist Aug 13 '13 at 20:00
  • 1
    I think your colleague is assuming that would and could work the same way in English. They don't. Maybe this is because würde and könnte work the same way in German. (I don't remember enough of my German to decide whether this is true.) – Peter Shor Aug 13 '13 at 21:14

There is nothing wrong with "If ... could ...".

(I looked at your linked rule, but can't comment on it as my German is not good enough.)
What I would say is that sometimes "rules" are given to learners as guidelines to prevent them making elementary mistakes until they have mastered more of a language. That is what I suspect happened in the related question I mentioned in a comment above: May you please explain this?.

Could is the past tense and subjunctive form of the verb can, which may be defined as follows:

can verb (past tense could)
1. to be able to • Can you lift that?
2. to know how to • He can play the guitar.
3. to feel able to; to feel it right to • How can you believe that?
4. used to express surprise • Can it really be that late?
5. used to express a possibility • The weather can change so quickly in the mountains.
6. to have permission to • Can I take an apple?
7. used when asking for help, etc • Can you give me the time?

Taking selected meanings from above, there is nothing wrong with

If you can/could ...

for example

If you are/were able to ...
If you know how to ...
If you feel able to ...

  • What’s a “subjective” form, and how does it differ from an “objective” form? Usually discussion of the nominative and the accusative is limited to substantives and their modifiers, not to verbal forms. – tchrist Aug 13 '13 at 19:58
  • @tchrist I assume that TrevorD means subjunctive rather than subjective (although this is still a bit of an over-simplification). – P Elliott Aug 13 '13 at 20:20
  • 2
    @PElliott Thanks. I did mean "subjunctive" - and I was trying to 'keep it simple'! – TrevorD Aug 13 '13 at 22:09

No, it is correct; you can read this article which has an example of

if you could

Example 1

Even if you could get a zero percent home loan for 30 years, if it eats up more than half your net pay, you probably can't afford it.

Example 2

What if you could capture the entire history of recorded human existence into one epic infographic for the ages?


reference for example 1

reference for example 2

protected by Community Aug 31 '16 at 1:26

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.