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For example, if I say

Could I borrow your pen?

Does it sound more polite than

Can I borrow your pen?

I am not a native English speaker, but I rarely hear someone says "Could I ...?". Isn't saying it natural?

Is there any situation that using "Can I ...?" is better (or more natural)than "Could I ...?"

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  • Yes, but in some environments "May I" or "Might I....." would be taken as even more polite. – Brian Hitchcock Jul 20 '15 at 10:56
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Could is a little more polite than can, since it is a conditional verb. There is an implication of it relying on unspoken conditions being met. Since those conditions are in the hands of the person being asked, it gives more authority and power to them, so the asker comes across as being humble and polite.

One problem, however, is that both can and could are verbs that express ability as well as permission ("Am I able to borrow your pen?" / "Would I be able to borrow your pen?"), which makes them a bit ambiguous, and can sound strange. Therefore it is more correct (and just as polite, if not more) to use the verb may, which is a pure request for permission with no ambiguity. "May I borrow your pen?" is perhaps the best way to ask your question.

Incidentally, an alternative to may is the conditional verb might: "Might I borrow your pen?" Some would say this is even more polite, others may/might/could think it to be going a bit too far.

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This is a common question for non-native speakers. "Can" talks about present ability. "Could" talks about hypothetical, imaginary, and past actions or ability. When you ask someone "Could I...?" you are asking them to consider doing something, which is always polite. In formal language such as a business letter, you should use "could" when making a request. In speaking, native English speakers will often use "can I" and "could I" interchangeably, causing confusion for learners. Remember that most English speakers are non-native and have learned to use "could I" to be polite, so I would recommend using it.

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could is more polite, it leaves the borrower the option of refusing the loan, possibly for a reason you are not aware of (the pen is to special to loan for example).

can is much more direct, appearing to mainly address the issue of it being logical for you to borrow the pen, and making it harder for the lender to so no you cannot. So if it is urgent or very important, can should be OK.

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As you are not a native speaker and you don't know how to use them but think if someone ask this same question to you that "Could I borrow your pen?" or "Can I borrow your pen?" , what do you feel more polite ? , obviously Could I. So It is not matter what is more polite but If your intention is asking politely then you can use either of it. :)

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