Alternative forms




From Middle English coude, couthe, cuthe, from Old English cūþe, past indicative and past subjunctive form of cunnan (to be able) (compare related cūþ, whence English couth). The 'l' was added in the early 16th century by analogy with should and would; this was probably helped by the tendency for 'l' to be lost in those words (and so not written, leading to shudd, wode, etc).[1][2]






  1. simple past of can
    Before I was blind, I could see very well.
  2. conditional of can
    1. Used as a past subjunctive (contrary to fact).
      I think he could do it if he really wanted to.
      I wish I could fly!
    2. Used to politely ask for permission to do something.
      Could I borrow your coat?
    3. Used to politely ask for someone else to do something.
      Could you proofread this email?
    4. Used to show the possibility that something might happen.
      • 2013 June 29, “Travels and travails”, in The Economist, volume 407, number 8842, page 55:
        Even without hovering drones, a lurking assassin, a thumping score and a denouement, the real-life story of Edward Snowden, a rogue spy on the run, could be straight out of the cinema. But, as with Hollywood, the subplots and exotic locations may distract from the real message: America’s discomfort and its foes’ glee.
      We could rearrange the time if you like.
    5. Used to suggest something.
      You could try adding more salt to the soup.
  3. (obsolete except Geordie) past participle of can
    • 1981, Anthony Warner, English Auxiliaries: Structure and History, published 1993, →ISBN, page 222:
      I haven't could sleep.

Usage notes

  • Some speakers and writers consider it wrong to use could to refer to permission. Such people favor replacing it with might, just as they favor replacing can with may when referring to permission.

Derived terms




could (plural coulds)

  1. Something that could happen, or could be the case, under different circumstances; a potentiality.
    • 1996, Fred Shoemaker, Extraordinary Golf: The Art of the Possible, page 88:
      When the golf ball is there, the whole self-interference package — the hopes, worries, and fears; the thoughts on how-to and how-not-to; the woulds, the coulds, and the shoulds — is there too.
    • 2010, Shushona Novos, The Personal Universal: A Guidebook for Spiritual Evolution, page 395:
      Shushona you must learn to rightfully prioritize all the woulds, shoulds and coulds of your life.

See also



  1. ^ can, v.1.”, in OED Online  , Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, March 2017.
  2. ^ Christopher Upward, George Davidson, The History of English Spelling (2011), section "Silent L"