Could vs. Would

Understanding Confusing Grammar - Lesson #5

In this lesson, we will cover the differences in how "could" and "would" are used in English.

1. "Could" is used to make polite requests. We use it when we are asking for help, a favor, or permission.
  • Could you come here, please?
  • Could you help me carry these boxes?
  • Could she help us with this project?
  • Could you lend me some money?
  • Could I borrow some money?
  • Could I use your phone for a minute?
2. "Would" is used to offer something in a polite way. We use "would like" for this.
  • Would you like some coffee?
  • Would you like some water?
  • Would you like more food?
  • Would you like me to help you?
  • Would you like me to give you a ride?
We can also use "would like" to invite somebody to do something.
  • Would you like to see a movie with me?
  • Would he like to go golfing with us this weekend?
  • Would you like to come to dinner at my house tonight?
3. "Could" is the past tense form of "can". And, "would" is the past tense form of "will".

We use present tense verbs with real conditionals and we use past tense verbs with unreal conditionals.
  • If I have time, I can help you.
  • If I had time, I could help you, but I don't have time.

  • If I get more money next year, I will buy this house.
  • If I were a millionaire, I would buy a castle.
"Can" is used to talk about talents or abilities in the present tense.
  • I can swim.
  • I couldn't swim when I was 10 years old.
And, possibilities in the present or the future.
  • I can't attend the meeting now.
  • I can't attend the meeting next Monday.
  • I couldn't attend the meeting last Monday.
4. Many people who are learning English get confused when they see a sentence like this.

A) We should go to Europe together.
B) That would be great.

Many people ask, "Why do we use ‘would' in this sentence?"

The reason that we use "would" is because the sentence is actually an unreal conditional. The speaker has just removed the if-statement because both the listener and speaker know it.

A) We should go to Europe together.
B) That would be great if we went to Europe together.

Person B just makes the sentence shorter by not repeating the if-statement.
  • That would be great.
So, if you ever see a sentence and you do not know why "would" is being used, then it is probably because it is an unreal conditional without the if-statement.

A) She might come to the party.
B) That would be fun (if she came to the party).

A) I might have to move abroad to work.
B) That would be hard (if you had to move abroad to work).


Use "could" to make polite requests.
  • Could you close the door, please?
  • Could you come here for a moment?
Use "would" to offer something or to invite somebody to do something.
  • Would you like a piece of gum?
  • Would you like to have lunch with us today?
Use "could" as the past tense of "can".
  • I couldn't speak English when I was in high school, but now I can speak English well.
Use "could" and "would" with unreal conditionals. "Could" has the same meaning as "can" and "would" has the same meaning as "will" in these sentences.
  • If it were on sale, I would buy it. But it is not on sale, so I will not buy it.
  • If the meeting were on Tuesday, I could attend. But the meeting is on Monday, so I can't attend.
Many people who are learning English struggle with these two words. Hopefully, you are not one of those people anymore. Make sure to come back and review this lesson and practice using the things you learned when you speak English.