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I have the following sentence and I don't know whether "can" or "could" would be a better choice.

  1. If the robot can learn from a human, it could keep track of humans.
  2. If the robot can learn from a human, it can keep track of humans.

Which one is correct in a proper English structure?

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  • I would say the second one. I don't know that mixing the conditional in makes the sentence better. They're probably both grammatical, though.
    – David M
    Mar 15, 2014 at 21:09
  • 'Could' is the answer because the use of 'can' implies that robots will not only learn from humans but develop the ichneutic skill. If you could prove your theory, then you could use can ;-)
    – Third News
    Apr 6, 2014 at 1:53

1 Answer 1

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Both could be correct but each is used in a slightly different context.

  1. If the robot can learn from a human, it could keep track of humans.
  2. If the robot can learn from a human, it can keep track of humans.

The form in (1) is a statement of possibility: "It is possible it could possess the ability to keep track of humans."

Form (2) is a statement of association: "It possesses the ability to keep track of humans."

That being said, this can/could distinction is subtle and not completely necessary. A different example to highlight the similarities:

If the team can score here, they could win the game!

If the team can score here, they can win the game!

These two sentences mean the exact same thing. The reason the can/could difference does not matter here is because someone who can win the game doesn't necessarily win the game.

But in your robot example, this isn't what you are trying to say. The statement is drawing a corollary between two different abilities. The sports example is drawing a corollary between an action and an ability.

Another example that matches the robot usages:

  1. If a student can learn algebra, he could learn calculus

  2. If a student can learn algebra, he can learn addition and subtraction

(1) is saying that a student who possesses the ability to learn algebra could also learn calculus. (2) is saying that a student who possesses the ability to learn algebra already has the ability to learn addition and subtraction.

But as I mentioned above, this difference is incredibly subtle and not something worth worrying about. You can use either of the examples in your question and they would be considered correct.

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