Does the could version always show more uncertainty/doubt than the can version in each of ⑴, ⑵, and ⑶?

  1. You can/could get very nasty skin diseases from bathing in dirty water.

  2. You can/could get into even worse trouble if you’re not careful.

  3. Bobby Reynolds did not win at Wimbledon on Thursday, or did he?

    The scoreboard showed the world № 1 Novak Djokovic defeated Reynolds, 7–6 (2), 6–3, 6–1, on Centre Court, and after winning three qualifying matches and a gutsy five-setter in his opening round, Reynolds’s 2013 singles campaign at the championships was over.

    He lost to a better player. He won in every other way one can/could imagine.

Or could it be that the could in ⑶ is simply the past-tense version of can so that it matches the past tense used in the two preceding verbs won and lost?


1 Answer 1


Could is not always less likely than can. Nor is it more likely. It isn't always anything; it's not that simple. In all of the above examples, it can (or, if you prefer, could) indicate less likelihood; but it can (or could) also indicate something different (like a different set of assumptions to draw conclusions from); and it can (or could) be pretty much indistinguishable from can.

A great deal depends on individual usage. People form habits about how and when they use which auxiliaries. In particular how they pronounce them -- intonation matters a lot with modals. Consider the many many ways the following sentence can be pronounced, including suppose and could (not to mention Well,):

  • Well, I suppose he could do that.

One can vary from certain affirmation to vehement denial, depending.

The big mistake is supposing that modals have fixed, simple meanings, like nouns. Auxiliaries are part of the machinery, and modals are far more complex than most engines. Modals are about variability, statistics, and individual judgements. They always represent somebody's judgement, but whose, and how good it is vary considerably.

  • 1
    but it can (or could) also indicate something different (like a different set of assumptions to draw conclusions from)----Would you please elaborate on this one a little more?
    – Mr. X
    Dec 26, 2020 at 16:55
  • 2
    there are limits to the uses of epistemic can; it only occurs in negative environments. You can say This can't be the place, but not *This can be the place. Mostly epistemic can and could are the same -- "possible" -- but there are a lot of ways of being "possible", since it's always a judgement by somebody with limited information, and there are an unbelievable number of kinds of information (most of which we don't understand) that make people decide what's "possible" (not to speak of "likely"). Dec 26, 2020 at 17:24

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