Could anybody help me here, please? I’d like to know the grammatical form of the verb “can" in the following examples:

18y old Tim is asked by a relative what he’s going to do with his life. After some hesitation, he finally answers: “Well, I COULD help my father on the farm - but I’m not sure if I want to be a farmer. I COULD also go to university but I don’t like studying… or I COULD train really hard and become a football pro. I don’t now yet, too many options…” Ten years later, Tim is lying on the street, an empty wine bottle in his hand, and he’s saying: “What ever happened to me,… I COULD HAVE become a football pro, if only I had tried harder,... or I COULD HAVE helped my father - but now he’s sold the farm.”

It's like conditionnel 1 and conditionnel 2 in French ("je pourrais / j’aurais pû”), but how is it called in English?

Thank you!


"Could" is a modal verb in English that has various meanings in various sentences. This is more of a grammar for usages of modal verbs that you could have found by searching, but anyhow, I always find subscription-only LDOCE pretty helpful, so I'm quoting its definitions here:

  1. Past ability: used as the past tense of 'can' to say what someone was able to do or was allowed to do in the past:
    The teacher said we could all go home.
    I couldn't get tickets after all, they were sold out.

  2. Possibility:

    a. used to say that something is possible or might happen:
    Most accidents in the home could be prevented.

    b. used to say that something was a possibility in the past, but did not actually happen:
    I could have warned you if I had known where you were.

  3. Emphasizing your feelings (spoken): used to emphasize how happy, angry, etc. you are by saying how you want to express your feelings:
    I was so angry that I could have killed her.

  4. Requesting (spoken): used to make a polite request:
    Could I have a glass of water, please?

  5. Suggesting: used to suggest doing something:
    You could ask your doctor for a check-up.

  6. Annoyance (spoken): used to show that you are annoyed about someone's behavior:
    You could have told me you were going to be late (=you should have told me, but you did not)!

  7. ...

  8. ...
  9. ...

The last three aren't all that much related to your sentences, so I'm not putting them here, and you can always search and find out more about them as your homework!

In the quotation you've provided, the first three imply the possibility (2.a.) and the three others can fit in 2.b., 3, or 6, however if you search and read some grammar books, you'll find out more about could have or if clauses (4th could in your quotation).

| improve this answer | |
  • Could is ever and always a past-tense inflection of can. English uses past and non-past inflections for a very, very wide variety of times and aspects; they certainly do not simply correspond to past-versus-present or anything trivial like that. Inflectionally, it is a past-tense form. Notionally, this can vary. Just as present tense can be used for the future, so too can pas t tense. – tchrist Jul 22 '14 at 14:22
  • Do you mean you disagree with what the dictionary says? I haven't made up my answer, but referenced it clearly. @tchrist People are taking their time to type and post answers here, and it's not right to down-vote whatever you don't agree with. – Neeku Jul 22 '14 at 14:25
  • I don’t disagree with what the OED says, no: “could /kʊd/, pa. t. (and obs. and dial. pa. pple.) of can v. q.v.” And I will certainly downvote answers that are wrong. – tchrist Jul 22 '14 at 14:27
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    @tchrist There are quite a few scholars (I believe John Lawler is one of them) who consider can and could (as well as will and would, shall and should, may and might) to be separate modals in Modern English, rather than simple inflection—leaving the entire modal class as completely uninflectable, defective verbs with only one form per verb. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 22 '14 at 14:54
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    The LDOCE breakdown looks accurate and useful to me. Deciding and explaining what words are actually used to mean / facilitate in sentences is more important than deciding on whether to lump or split. That is important, but the fact that grammarians disagree on classification shows that it is often arrogant to claim one classification system as 'the' classification system. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 22 '14 at 22:41

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