Would vs. Can

'Would' and 'can' are commonly used to make offers and requests. In this lesson, we will learn their similarities and differences.

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

What Is Their Main Difference?

The main difference between the modal verbs 'would' and 'can' is that 'would' talks about predictions and 'can' is used to talk about abilities.

The modal verb 'would' is used to give additional information about the main verb. These information includes talking about willingness, habits, offers, and requests. 'Would' is the past tense of the modal verb 'will.' Have a look:

I wouldn't do that if I were you.

They would escort you to your assigned rooms.

'Can' is one of the most commonly known modal verbs. It talks about abilities, permissions, requests, offers, etc. For instance:

He can take care of himself.

You can find Nick in his office.

Similarities

Making Offers and Requests

Making Offers

We can use 'would' and 'can' to make offers.
The combination of 'would' with 'like' as the main verb in the interrogative form is used to make polite offers:

Would you like some tea?

Would you like to join us for dinner?

'Can' is used in affirmative and interrogative sentences to make offers. 'Can' is considered less formal than 'would:'

Can I get you some tea?

I can get you some tea.

Making Requests

We use 'can' and 'would' to request something.

Would you come over?

Would you close the door?

  • 'Can' is used in interrogative form to ask someone to do something. 'Can' is informal in this context:

Can you come over?

Can you close the door?

Negation and Question

We can use 'would' and 'can' to create negative sentences and questions.

Negation

To make negative sentences, we add 'not' to the modal verbs 'would' and 'can' as illustrated below:

  • CanCannotCan't
  • WouldWould notWouldn't

For example:

I can make us food. → I can't make us food.

It would be fun. → It wouldn't be fun.

Question

Modal verbs can create yes/no questions and wh-questions.

  • To create yes/no questions, we simply invert the modal verbs 'can' and 'would:'

You can stand up. → Can you stand up?

The door would open. → Would the door open?

  • To create wh-questions, we begin with a wh-word such as what, when, where, who, why, and how then comes the modal verbs 'would' or 'can,' followed by the subject, and the base form of the main verb. For example:

Where would you like to go?

What would she say if she sees this mess?

Differences

Talking about Abilities

We use 'can' to show that one is able to do an action. Have a look:

Elephants can swim.

She can cheer anyone up.

To talk about inabilities, we use the negative form 'cannot' or its contracted form 'can't:'

Elephants cannot jump.

She can't cheer anyone up.

Talking about Predictions

We use 'would' to predict the future even though 'would' is the past tense of 'will.' What we predict with 'would' is something we thought will occur in the future but perhaps it still hasn't occurred.

It would rain tomorrow.

We believe the condition would get better.

With Conditionals

Modal verbs can be used in conditional sentences. In the table below, we have illustrated 'would' and 'can' with all types of conditionals.

Conditionals Type 1

We use 'can' in conditional type one. In this type, we talk about real situations and their results. These situations have a high chance of occurrence. Have a look:

She can work anywhere if she tries harder.

He can drive the car, if he is careful enough.

Conditionals Type 2

We use 'would' in the second type of conditionals. In this type of conditionals, we are talking about hypothetical situations in the present or future that often have a low chance of occurrence. For instance:

If I ever have a son, I would name him Steve.

If I win a lottery, I would help a charity.

Conditionals Type 3

We use 'would' in conditional type three. In this type, we are talking about an imaginary past. In other words, we are imagining a past that could have happened but never did. For example:

We would have gotten wet, if it rained.

I would have helped her, if I had noticed her.

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