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TrainofThought
11-19-2006, 07:28 AM
Can someone please explain the rules regarding 'can' and 'could'? I know I am not using them properly.

Here are a few examples:

Rejection can happen at any time after surgery; even years later.
How could anyone recover in a hospital?

Thanks for you help.:)

jenfreedom
11-19-2006, 08:36 AM
I'm not sure about the right choice between "can" and "could" - I'd use "could" if I only had a choice between the two. I'm curious to see what folks here say.

That said I think that the word "may" is better than "can." The word 'may' refers to possibility and the word 'can' refers to capability. It seems like there is a possibility not a capability for rejection.

Hmmm. That's my 2 cents.

Take care
~Jennifer

veronie
11-19-2006, 08:37 AM
I'll give this one a shot.

Short answer: They both work.

Both of these words can express the realm of the possible or theoretical as opposed to the definite. However, there are shades of different meanings between the two.

But, I think your example sentences are fine. According to the dictionary, "could" expresses a shade of doubt, or a smaller sense of certainty than "can."

(They say rewriting is the key to good writing, and i rewrote this post about a gazillion times. I hacked away all the blithering nonsense, and left the stuff that was a little better than blithering nonsense.)

More info:

http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/auxiliary.htm#can

www.englishclub.com/grammar/verbs-modals_can_2.htm

jenfreedom
11-19-2006, 08:40 AM
Oh, I also wanted to say that you could cut the "at any time" because right away you go on to say "even years later" which says the same thing about time to me the reader. No use saying something twice.

~Jennifer

Carmy
11-19-2006, 09:54 AM
This might help:

http://www.onestopenglish.com/section.asp?catid=59427&docid=146362

veronie
11-19-2006, 11:06 AM
About Jen's comment on may and can: I believe that rule is all but gone from contemporary English. (“May” referred to permission; “can” referred to ability.) Nowadays, they can be used as synonyms, unless you want to be real formal.

Besides, when you don't have ability, you “can't” do something. When you don't have permission, you “mayn't” do something. :)

Carmy
11-19-2006, 09:35 PM
Believe it or not, mayn't is used in some parts of the UK.

TrainofThought
11-19-2006, 10:12 PM
Thanks for your responses. I will refer to the links and advice when ‘can’ and ‘could’ pop-up in my writing.

jenfreedom
11-20-2006, 01:22 AM
About Jen's comment on may and can: I believe that rule is all but gone from contemporary English. (“May” referred to permission; “can” referred to ability.) Nowadays, they can be used as synonyms, unless you want to be real formal.

Besides, when you don't have ability, you “can't” do something. When you don't have permission, you “mayn't” do something. :)

I looked up this up in my most recent Tech Writers Manual and it was listed as a current rule (May to possibility, not permission - although it does that too). I was working all night and thought about this thread much of the time - lame huh. I kept thinking what exact word WOULD I use??? I'm on the fence but after reading everyone's posts and thinking it over I've come to 2 conclusion.

1) 'Can' to me seems harsher. Like "You CAN get cancer if you..." vs. "You MAY get cancer if you..." The 'may' seems less concrete and maybe more hopeful, less scary. So I suppose it depends on what I'd want to get across.

2) I've picked words that I liked, my writing friends liked, an old client liked, and still had an editor or client change it. Which makes the word pondering seem less important. I'm sure I'll still do it though.

Take care
~ Jennifer

veronie
11-20-2006, 01:49 AM
Oh, ok Jen. We may have been talking about two different rules.

Eeman
11-24-2006, 04:53 AM
A lot of times you see the can/could distinction in conditionals, such as the following:

Type I:

If you study computer science, you can become a technical writer.

Type I deals with the concrete, something that is very possible/likely to occur. The verb study is in the simple present.

Type II:

If you studied computer science, you could become a technical writer.

Type II deals with things that are not as concrete, things you might be dreaming of for the future. This involves some speculation. The verb study is in the simple past.

Type III:

If you had studied computer science, you could have become a technical writer.

Type III deals with things that did not happen in the past and the consequences/results. The verb study is in the past perfect.

Regarding your two examples:


Rejection can happen at any time after surgery; even years later.
How could anyone recover in a hospital?


I find them both awkward.

In the first sentence, I would prefer may or might instead of can.

Rejection may happen at any time after surgery.
Rejection might happen at any time after surgery.

For the second, I would make it:

How could someone recover in a hospital? (talking about a hypothetical situation in the future)

or:

How can anyone recover in a hospital? (a general question)

If you read up on the three types of conditionals and when to use them, this will start to make more sense.