How to use could in English sentences

How to use could and couldn’t in English sentences


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Could is the preterite of can. It expresses a capacity in the past. Couldn’t express a disability in the past, or something hypothetical.

COULD

Could can express a capacity or permission in the past (it is used as the past of can):

  • I could smell something burning. 
  • My grandmother could speak six languages. 
  • I was totally free. I could go where I wanted. 

Compare the following sentences:

  • I can see something.  (present)
  • I could see something. (past)

Could could mean a hypothetical ability, i.e. something could be realized or be true now or in the future (it’s similar to might or may):

  • You could succeed if you worked harder. 
  • I could go out with you but I’m tired. 
  • They could arrive anytime now. 
  • Could you do this exercise in one minute? 
  • If we had some eggs I could make you some pancakes. 

We can use could to make a suggestion or talk about possible actions (we can then replace it with can):

  • We could go to the movies tonight if you want. 
  • When you go to London next week, you could stay at Paul’s place. 
  • He could try to fix the car himself. 

Could also express a logical deduction:

  • It could be true. 
  • She could still be in bed. 
  • It could freeze tonight. 
  • Where’s Paul? He could be at Tony’s place. 

Could have + past participle is used to express a possibility in the past, but that has not happened (to make a criticism, or to express a hypothesis, for example):

  • You could have broken your arm.
  • He could have tried once more. 
  • Your brother could have helped you. 
  • We were lucky: we could have run out of petrol. 

Could also express unrealistic things:

  • This place is amazing. I could stay here for ever. 

Could allows you to ask for permission or something politely, in the present:

  • Could I please use your bathroom? 
  • Could we move on to the next topic now please? 
  • Could you pass me the salt please? 
  • I’m busy right now. Could you call back later? 

COULDN’T

Couldn’t allows to express a disability in the past:

  • I was so tired I couldn’t get up. 
  • I couldn’t start my car this morning. 

This incapacity could be due to something that was not permitted or authorized:

  • In high school, we couldn’t use our smartphones. 
  • Tina couldn’t go to the party because his parents wouldn’t let her. 

With couldn’t, we doubt that anything is true, we are almost sure of what we are saying:

  • It couldn’t be true.
  • Paul couldn’t be at Tony’s place. 
  • You couldn’t be hungry. You’ve just had some pizza. 

To express the impossibility of the past, we use couldn’t have + past participle:

  • We had a really good evening. It couldn’t have been better. 
  • Tina couldn’t have gone to the party because she was sick. 

 

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