"Could" vs. "Would" in the English grammar

Could vs. Would

'Could' and 'might' are modal verbs that help us express additional information. In this lesson, we will learn their uses and differences.

"Could" vs. "Would" in the English grammar

What Is Their Main Difference?

The main difference between modal verbs 'could' and 'would' is that 'could' is the past tense of 'can,' and 'would' is the past tense of 'will.'

'Could' is one of the most commonly known modal verbs. It is used to show past abilities, possibilities, requests, etc. To put it simply, 'could' is the past tense of modal verb 'can.' For example:

I could call a cab.

Here, we are talking about possibilities.

She could pick up weights up to 100 kilograms.

Here, we are talking about abilities.

'Would' is a modal verb that talks about predictions, willingness, offers, requests, etc. Technically, 'would' is the past tense of the modal verb 'will.' For instance:

I would buy that bike if I had the money.

It would rain by tomorrow.

Similarities

Past Tense

Both 'could' and 'would' are past tenses of other modals. 'Would' is the past tense of 'will,' and 'could' is the past tense of 'can.' Have a look:

I can jump high. → I could jump high.

I will call a cab. → I would call a cab.

Making Offers

Offers are statements that show the speaker is willing to do something for someone. 'Could' is used (not in past tense) to make a formal offer. 'Would' is also used to ask someone if they like to do something. Have a look:

Could I give you a brochure of our product?

Would you like to have a few minutes off?

Making Requests

Requests are a way for us to ask for favors. We can use 'could' and 'would' to request something. We use them to make requests at the present time and not in past. Both are used in formal contexts. For example:

Could you pass the salt?

Would you pass the salt?

Negation and Question

As modal verbs, 'could' and 'would' are bound to change when it comes to creating negative sentences. To make them negative, we add 'not' to them as shown below:

  • CouldCould notCouldn't
  • WouldWould notWouldn't

Here are some examples for negative sentences with 'would' and 'could.'

I could walk for hours. → I couldn't walk for hours.

She would like this gift. → She wouldn't like this gift.

Modal verbs are considered as the heads of the sentences. When creating interrogative forms, we simply invert them. This rule applies to 'could' and 'would' when creating questions. Watch:

They could speak three languages. → Could they speak three languages?

He would talk about Comics all day. → Would he talk about Comics all day?

With Other Modals

We only have one modal verb in a sentence and we cannot add more than one modal verb to a sentence. 'Could' and 'would' are no exception to this rule. We cannot use them with other modals. Have a look:

I may would go hiking this weekend.

I should could learn a new language.

With Conditionals

'Could' and 'would' are modal verbs that can be used as conditional verbs.

Conditionals Type 2

Conditionals type 2 talks about imaginary situations or unreal future.
'Could' in this type of conditional is used to show that if the conditions were set and right, an action or event has a definite chance of occurrence.
'Would' in this type of conditional is used to show that if the conditions were set and right, an action or event will certainly occur.
Watch:

If I am elected, I could end inequality.

If I am elected, I would end inequality.

Conditional Type 3

'Would' and 'could' are also used as a conditional verb for the third type of conditionals. This type shows hypothetical situations in the past. In other word, we are imagining a different outcome or a different past. 'Would' is the most common modal verb used in the third conditional.

If I had practiced harder, I could have won the contest.

If the subject had practiced harder, they would have been able to win the contest.

If I had practiced harder, I would have won the contest.

If the subject had practiced harder, they certainly would have won the contest.

Differences

Giving and Asking for Permission

'Could' is used to give and ask for permission. It is mainly used in formal contexts as using 'could' is polite. Have a look:

Could I borrow your notes?

You could borrow my notes.

Predictions

We use 'would' to talk about past predictions about events that were supposed to happen in the future. These events may have not happened. For instance:

I thought it would be cold this morning.

He said he would be here for my birthday.

Abilities

One of the most commonly known uses of 'could' is talking about abilities, talents, or skills. Since 'could' is in the past tense, we use it to talk about past abilities. These abilities no longer exist or the person who was able to do them is deceased. For example:

My grandfather could make anything with wood.

He could swim really fast.

Habits

'Would' is used to talk about habits and routine actions and events. These actions tend to repeat themselves.

He would talk non-stop about that band he likes.

I would take the bus to work.

Formality

'Could' and 'would' are used in not only one common ground. That being said, choosing which to use when speaking and writing mainly depends on the formality of the context. 'Could' is more formal than 'would.'

Could you close the door?

Would you close the door?

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