Tagged: modals

I would if I could, but I can’t

ūüė¶ I enjoy using Facebook because I could see photos of my friends there.

Students are often confused about can/could, will/would. Sometimes they have learned at school that¬†could and would are more formal, or more polite than can and will. That may be true when you are requesting something, but in IELTS¬†speaking and writing you’re usually using can and will¬†to communicate possibility or ability rather than to make a request.


How possible is it?

ūüôā I enjoy using Facebook because I¬†can¬†see photos of my friends there.

In this case there is a strong possibility (almost 100%) that I will see my friend’s photos on Facebook. In this case I need to use can.

Let’s¬†imagine a similar situation where there is no possibility:

If I had an Internet connection, I could see photos of my friends on Facebook.

Here the writer clearly does not have an Internet connection and so there is no possibility of him seeing his friend’s photos.¬†Notice that in this example¬†could is part of a structure called ‘second conditional’:

If + subj + V2 + ‘,’ + subj + could/would + V1

In the ‘second conditional’¬†the situation you are describing is¬†unlikely:

“If I found a million dollars in the street I would buy a new house.”

Second conditional Рan unlikely situation Рis by far the most common context for could and would.


flag-of-indonesia¬†Indonesian students tend to overuse ‘will’ because they want to translate ‘akan’. But¬†‘will’ is not used in English as much as ‘akan’ is used in Indonesian. Actually there are generally only¬†three¬†situations where will is suitable:

  1. ‘First conditional’ – a situation that is highly possible:

Look at those clouds. I forgot my umbrella. If it rains I will get wet!

  1. Predictions

Look at those dark clouds! It will probably rain soon.

  1. Habits (usually annoying habits)

He drives me crazy. He’ll (he will) trim his nails and then leave the cuttings all over the floor for me to clean up!


How able are you (or were you)?

It’s unusual to talk about past abilities, because once you¬†acquire an ability, for example the ability to swim, you rarely lose that ability. It¬†would be ridiculous, for example, to write:

When I was younger I could swim, but then I forgot how to¬†swim so now I can’t.

We generally only lose this kind of ability when something terrible happens to us:

When I was younger I could swim, but then I lost my arms and legs and so now I can’t swim.

On the other hand ability can sometimes be a matter of degree. for example we can talk about partial ability, and about changes in our level of ability:

When I was younger I could swim 20km, but now that I’m old I can only swim¬†20 metres!

Most of the time¬†when we talk about ability we¬†use¬†can – present tense – because, most of the time, we’re making a claim that is true now.

Summing up

Next time you write could or would stop and think. You probably should be writing can or will!




Were you able to bargain for IELTS?

ūüė¶ Budi tried to teach himself IELTS¬†but made no progress. Then he discovered¬†¬†@eapguru and last Saturday¬†he¬†could¬†achieve band 7.0.

Ok,ok.. I made this one up. It may look like¬†shameless¬†self-promotion, but it’s a problem I often see in student writing. Honest.

Consider this scenario:

When @eapguru first arrived in Indonesia he could speak only English and French. Now, after 20 years in Indonesia, he can speak Indonesian fluently. Last weekend he bought some bananas from the local market and he was able to negotiate a reasonable price.

Here there are two kinds of ability:

  1. A permanent ability that existed/exists continuously over time (“..he could speak../..he can speak..”). Note that this can be past or present.
  2. A temporary ability in the past that existed momentarily, relating to a particular event (“..he was able to negotiate..”). Note that this is always past.

So if we return to the original problem:

ūüôā Budi tried¬†to teach himself IELTS¬†but made no progress.¬†Then he discovered¬†@eapguru¬†and last Saturday¬†he was able to achieve¬†band 7.0.

Note that the temporary ability was required in a situation that was difficult and required effort / struggle.