This is from a song lyric

If a picture paints a thousand words,
Then why can't I paint you?
The words will never show the you I've come to know.
If a face could launch a thousand ships,
Then where am I to go?
There's no one home but you,
You're all that's left me too.
And when my love for life is running dry,
You come and pour yourself on me.

First the singer says If a picture paints a thousand words.

Followed by, If a face could launch a thousand ships.

Why does the singer sing "If a face could launch a thousand ships"?

Why not, "If a face can launch a thousand ships"?

Why is can used in the past?

  • 1
    I suppose if you wanted to be really picky and punctilious the author could have written "If a face had launched a thousand ships" because since Helen of Troy the event has not been repeated. But "could" in this line expresses theoretical possibility, in theory, the event could repeat itself.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 24, 2014 at 7:31
  • 3
    Just because I like nitpicking, but the famous line is not the one in the lyrics. It's "Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships", from Goethe's Faust.
    – oerkelens
    Oct 24, 2014 at 8:49
  • 1
    @oerkelens You persnickety you! I did of course mean the lyric line. It's almost as old as Homer's Iliad :) Might make a good etymology question...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 24, 2014 at 8:57
  • 1
    The past tense signifies a pre-requiste. It's required.
    – Kris
    Oct 24, 2014 at 9:32
  • 1
    @oerkelens, the line is not from Goethe's Faust but rather from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. Oct 24, 2014 at 17:02

2 Answers 2


To start with, could can be read as a conditional. It could launch a thousand ships if the conditions are right.

Secondly, you can indeed read it as past, because it refers to a (mythological) past event.

It is a reference to the quite famous story of the Trojan War. That war, as legend has it, was waged because the prince of Troy abducted the most beautiful woman in the world (Helen).

Because of that, the Greeks assembled the biggest assembled fleet they could, rumoured to be a thousand ships, to besiege Troy. This is all very nicely described by Homer, a Greek writer.

Helen was said to be so beautiful, that her face launched a thousand ships.

  • 1
    could is conditional so is can.
    – user4951
    Oct 24, 2014 at 7:01
  • -1 Jim's pointer to the simple fact renders this answer vacuous.
    – Kris
    Oct 24, 2014 at 9:28
  • 1
    Both could and can be read as conditional. However, I think it's unlikely to be the intended meaning, which is why I added the rest of the answer (it's simply a past tense). I fail to see how that is rendered vacuous by a stated fact with little relevance to that part...
    – oerkelens
    Oct 24, 2014 at 9:34
  • @JimThio: Yes? That's a rather pointless comment. They're also verbs. The important word of the first sentence is not conditional, it's can. "could" can be read as a conditional (past tense) or a hypothetical (present tense). The question presupposes the second alternative, the present tense, by contrasting it with "paints" (also present tense). Thus the first sentence of this answer is a statement that there are two interpretations, and thus that the assumption in the question is wrong.
    – MSalters
    Oct 24, 2014 at 15:37

Jim just to be clear,

the reason that in that song it uses "If a face could launch a thousand ships"

is because that phrase is a pre-existing well-known phrase.

(The whole point of the song, is that the sonf is an "extension" of that well-known phrase .. does that make sense?)

In answer to your other question, why -- in the original phrase -- do we tend to say "could" rather than "can" .... I have absolutely no idea.

It might be there is "no reason" and you are completely correct: either it would be better to use "can" or "can"/"could" are absolutely equally justified by the English grammar board.

  • @KRyan, the line you quote is not from the Iliad at all but from an Early Modern English play, no translation needed. In fact the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad totals 1186, not 1000. Oct 24, 2014 at 17:14

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