A Hong Kong-based contributor to Jose Carillo’s English Forum, Isabel E., e-mailed me the following questions a few days ago:
“Joe, have you tackled ‘can’ and ‘could,” which are often misused? Come to think of it, ‘will’ and ‘would’ can also get confusing sometimes. And while I’m at it, have you ever discussed the quaint use of ‘sir’ before male first names by Filipino underlings towards their bosses? This is obviously a colonial hang-up that’s comical in its obsequiousness.”
My reply to Isabel E.:
Yes, I’ve tackled “can” and “could” and “will” and “would” several times in the Forum, but for those who still get baffled by these modals, I’ll now quickly discuss their usage by way of review.
As we learn early in English grammar, “can” and “could” convey the idea of ability, possibility, permission, or potential; “can” is the present-tense form, as in “She can play the piano,” but it inflects to “could” in the past tense,” as in “There was a time when she could play the piano.”
On the other hand, “will” and “would” convey the idea of desire, choice, willingness, consent, or habitual or customary action; “will” is the present-tense form, as in “We will follow his orders without question,” but it inflects to “would” in the past tense, as in “During his first year in office, we would follow his orders without question.” We must keep in mind that the modal use of “will” is distinct from its use for expressing simple futurity, as in “She will leave for Singapore at noon tomorrow.”
Apart from these basic uses, these four modal forms can convey various other senses and nuances.
In particular, “can” is also used (a) for declaring what can be perceived by the senses, as in “I can taste a hint of lime in this drink”; (b) for saying what can possibly be done: “You can sleep all day if you want”; (c) for conveying the idea of being allowed to do something or having the right or power to do something: “You can live in my apartment while I’m away”; and (d) as a mark of civility or politeness when making spoken requests or when offering or suggesting something: “Can you tell me how to refuse his offer without offending him?” (This is in contrast to bluntly saying, “Tell me how to refuse his offer without offending him.”).
On the other hand, “could” is used to make a deferential or more polite request, offer, or suggestion: “Could you tell me how to refuse his offer without offending him?” This use of “could” instead of “can” is largely dictated by the speaker’s awareness that the person being addressed is of superior rank or higher social station.
In the same token, the modal “would” is used to express politeness and deference in conveying intent or desire, as in “Would you consider my daughter’s application for internship?” This is as opposed to the straightforward suggestion or pointed request conveyed by “Will you consider my daughter’s application for internship?”
One more thing: the past-tense modals “would” and “could” are used in indirect speech that’s introduced by a verb in the past tense. This is the case in “Archimedes declared that he could move the world if only he had the lever to lift it” and in “The erring chief executive pledged that he would stop any more unlawful spending.”
These are about all that we absolutely need to know regarding the usage of the modals “can” and “could” and “will” and “would.”
As to the the quaint use of “sir” before male first names by Filipino underlings towards their bosses, I find it disagreeable myself but I don’t feel qualified to discuss it. Perhaps some astute Filipino social scientist can enlighten us about this quirk in the language of the Philippine workplace.
Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.