Why is this sentence correct: "Could you find Diana's bag?" According to what grammars say, it should be: "Did you manage to find Diana's bag?" Because: 1.it indicates ability in a particular moment. 2."find" is not a perception verb. 3.there is no negative limiting adverb. 4.it does not occur in a subordinate clause. I found this example in an activity and it marks as wrong the second example but not the first one,but I still can't understand why.

  • I don't understand the explanations either, but "Could you find Diana's bag?" sounds more like a request to search for it than an enquiry as to whether or not it has been found. If the searcher could/was able to find it, they did find it, so it would be more natural to ask "Did you find Diana's bag?" Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 9:14
  • The restrictions on the use of could that you list apply to affirmative statements. So the sentence ?After looking for Diana's bag all morning I could find it under the bed is of dubious grammaticality. But the restrictions do not to apply to negative statements, and seem not to apply to questions. Here is an answer about affirmative could containing references on the topic from pedagogic and descriptive grammars: english.stackexchange.com/questions/112433/…
    – Shoe
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 10:12
  • Thanks a lot! I had not considered the possibility that it might indicate "request" rather than ability.That could explain it.
    – Isabel
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 10:12

2 Answers 2


"Could you find Diana's bag?" and "Did you manage to find Diana's bag?" are both grammatically correct but mean (at least) 2 different things. Unfortunately, "could" is a difficult word to master because it has so many different meanings and usages, and a lot of the differences are subtle.

"Could you find Diana's bag?" is the colloquial/idomatic form of a request to find the bag (i.e. "Please find Diana's bag") and how most native US English speakers would interpret the meaning of that sentence, though some people find that usage irritating because of its literal meaning, which is "Is finding Diana's bag a task you are able to accomplish?" Those people would prefer to be asked "Would you find Diana's bag?"

In the literal case, "could" is the past tense of "can" but is not being used as a past tense but rather, as is true with many other modal verbs, the past tense is used to indicate some tentativeness or probability in the present. People can and do as "Can you find Diana's bag?" but the definiteness of "can" makes that request more forceful and therefore impolite for the people who accept the idiomatic sense of the word, and it really irritates the people who focus on the literal meaning because by forcefully asking "can you do something" the speaker is implying that they (the speaker) believe you (being spoken to) cannot do it. With "could", they are at least saying they think it is reasonably possible or perhaps even likely that you can.

"Did you manage to find Diana's bag?" assumes that you previously indicated that you would look for it but somehow expressed uncertainty about whether or not you would be successful, and the speaker is now asking for an update on that later activity.


could you find can refer to a general state of affairs in the past:

When you lived on the tundra in Alaska, could you find enough food to eat?

However, your example with "Diana" and the search for her bag, if it is not a request (i.e. Could you please find ...) would seem to refer to a discrete incident in the past, since we don't generally look for Diana's bag as a habitual or regular practice:

Could you find Diana's bag? unidiomatic when not a request

and you are correct that the usual ways to ask a question about a particular incident in which someone was searching for something:

Were you able to find it?

Did you manage to find it?

Did you find it?

That isn't to say that we couldn't concoct a scenario where the question was idiomatic; we'd just have to make the search something regular:

When we were first going out, Diana refused to believe I had ESP, and she would test me by hiding her bag and then demanding I find it.
-- Well, could you find it without ransacking the place?

  • For me, there's nothing problematic about a question such as: "Could you find that bag you were looking for yesterday?, although "Did you find ...?" is probably more common.
    – Shoe
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 11:38
  • @Shoe: "were looking for" mitigates the issue. The continuous makes it not a discrete event but a series of events, an ongoing thing. Do you feel the same about Could you find that bag you wanted to find? or Could you find that bag you needed? or Could you find your dog that ran away?
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 11:43
  • You make an interesting point. But I still don't find anything too objectionable about the three questions. It would be interesting to hear other opinions on this. In the meantime I'll see if I can find anything in my grammar reference books.
    – Shoe
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 11:58
  • @Shoe: I think the answer of yours, which you cited in the comment at the top of the page here, gets at the issue where you're quoting Huddleston and Pullum: "... could does not normally appear in affirmative contexts when it is a matter of actualisation of a single situation viewed perfectively" [my emphasis]
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 12:09
  • Is a question an affirmative context? I'm not sure. But at the risk of belabouring the point, I see nothing problematic, for example, in asking a friend who has just returned from holiday: Could you find a nice place to stay?
    – Shoe
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 12:28

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