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Can, Could, Will, Would

 

Techniques > Use of language > Similar Words > Can, Could, Will, Would

Method | Example | Discussion | See also

 

Method

When you ask a person to do something, you can say:

  • Can you help me?
  • Could you help me?
  • Will you help me?
  • Would you help me?

So what is the difference and when would you use each variant? All are requests for help, yet each has a subtle difference in meaning and effect.

  • 'Can' and 'Could' both are about possibility. A person could answer 'yes' and still refuse to help. Yet the words also suggest that saying 'no' indicates that they are incapable, which may lead them to say 'yes' just to refute this implied lack of ability. For this reason, 'can' and 'could' can be more effective, even though they are also more manipulative.
  • 'Can' is more direct than 'Could' as it directly references ability, and hence is a stronger approach that will influence some, but may cause resistance in others. 'Could' is past tense and hence less immediate.
  • 'Will' is future tense and is the most direct request. In formal situations where clarity is needed it is the best response. At times when the other person is concerned about status it may get a direct refusal that prevents further negotiation. 'Will' requests may be usefully softened with such as 'Will you please...'.
  • 'Would' is past tense and hence less direct than 'Will', yet less indirect than 'Can' or 'Could'. It can also suggest conditionality, such as 'If I did this would you do that?'

Example

Can you lift this? Of course you can. Come on, then.

If I cook you dinner, would you peel the vegetables?

I wasn't sure if you could fix this, but I know you will if you can.

Discussion

Overall, while the requests are identical, there are subtle differences as above. In many situations there will be little or no difference in the response, but when people are less sensitive to manipulation, then the possibility form can be used, while in formal settings 'Will' is better. 'Please' may also be added as appropriate to be more friendly and increase obligation to comply.

See also

Possibility Language

 

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