In this grammar lesson, you will learn about the many uses of the auxiliary verb “could” in English. I will teach you how to use it correctly when speaking about the past, the conditional, and even when making polite requests for the future. For example, do we say “Can you tell me” or “Could you tell me”? What about “I could have been” or “I could of been”? I will give you many examples of how it can be used in different contexts. Even native English speakers use “could” incorrectly, so watch this video to avoid making common mistakes! Next, take the quiz:

Watch my lesson how to use the auxiliary verb ‘WOULD’:


Hello. I’m Gill at, and today we have a lesson on an auxiliary modal verb: “could”, the use of “could”. So, there are two ways… Well, we have five ways that it’s used here, but “could” comes either from as the past tense of the verb “can”, which is also an auxiliary modal verb, “can”: “could” in the past; or it’s used as an auxiliary verb with other verbs combined. So, sorry that sounds very complicated, but I hope it comes clearer with the sentences to illustrate how it can be used. Okay.

So, first of all, just to show the simple past tense of “can”, if I can do something: I can do something today, yesterday I could do it as well; or I couldn’t do it yesterday, you could use the negative as well. So, first sentence, then: “At one time”-in the past-“I could run a mile and not get out of breath”. So, to get out of breath is when you’ve been running a lot, and then you can’t… You’re breathing very quickly and you have to wait for your body to get back to normal. And if you’re running, also, it might be painful and you have to stop, so that’s getting out of breath. Okay? So: “At one time in the past I could run a mile.” I can’t say now in the present I can run a mile, because I can’t, okay? But in the past, at one time, I could run a mile and not get out of breath. Okay, so that’s just the past tense of “can”.

But then the other four examples are where it’s used as an auxiliary modal verb with different ways of using it. So we have four different ways of using it, here. First of all, number two is a polite request. So, instead of: “Can I…?” you say: “Could I…? Could I borrow your pen, please, just for a moment? Could I borrow your pen, please?” If you say: “Can I…?” it’s okay, but it’s not quite as polite. So if you really want the person to say: “Yes, of course”, if you’re polite they are more likely to let you borrow their pen. So: “Could. Could I please?” So we’ve got: “Could I” and we also have “please” at the end. Or you could put: “Please” near the beginning: “Please. Please could I…? Could I please…?” Any order. “Can I borrow your pen, please, just for a moment?” So that’s a polite request. Okay.

And then the third sentence is when you’re saying that something is possible. You’re telling somebody something is possible if… If they do something, so this is called a conditional. Okay. And that… We have lots of video lessons on conditionals, so do have a look for those. So, here is an example: “You could get good marks in the exam if you study every day.” So, the conditional: “Could” often uses “if”, because you have a choice. Are you going to study every day and get good marks in the exam, or are you going to maybe study once or twice a week and then you get to the exam and you don’t do so well, or what’s your choice? So this is your teacher, your tutor might tell you: “You could get good marks in the exam if you study every day”, if you work hard regularly every day. So that’s a possibility, a conditional. Right.

So, then number four, this is a polite way of maybe giving a criticism or suggesting something isn’t right, there’s a mistake, or something may have gone wrong. If you say: “I could be wrong, but… I could be wrong, but I think there’s a mistake (an error) in these figures.” So if you’re looking at some accounts, and the figures in columns and they’re supposed to add up accurately, and you look at it and you think: “This doesn’t look right.” If you’re an accounting genius, you can maybe see immediately something isn’t right; the figures don’t balance or something. So… But you don’t want to say: “Oh, that’s wrong. That’s not right.” You don’t want to be so direct, so you’re very careful that when you begin your sentence: “I could be wrong, but I think…” So you’re not saying: “I know. I can see there’s a mistake there.” You wouldn’t say that. “I think there’s a mistake (an error) in these figures”, so it’s a polite way of suggesting there could be a mistake. “I could be wrong, but…” Okay. Useful phrase.

And then, finally, in this first half of the lesson, when somebody is saying they could have done something or they could have been something, a profession: “I could have been a ballet dancer, but something happened to stop me.” […]



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