Could / Should

Offer options and advice

lost wallet
 

 

My wallet isn't here!  What should I do?

COULD

a little strengthCould expresses an idea or an option without imposing one's judgment of what is "right" to do. Could is often used for offering ideas as possible solutions.

MODAL PLAIN FORM VERB

You could

go back to where you last opened your bag and look around.

You could

walk back along the way you just walked.

You could

search the pockets of your bag / backpack.

You could

ask people if they have seen it.

SHOULD

strongerShould expresses one's opinion on an action to take: advice, a strong suggestion. It is more commonly used for peer to peer (same rank or authority) advice or with family. 

MODAL PLAIN FORM VERB

You should

check the places you have been today.

You should

cancel your credit cards.

You should

notify campus security / police.

You should

arrange to get a new identification card.

 

suggestion (count noun) – a helpful idea, plan, or possibility that someone mentions
advice (noncount noun) – an opinion you give someone about what they should do; something with higher priority
priority – needing attention before all else (other things)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suggestions & Advice

Politeness — Status and Rank

 

 

 

The electricity went off. What do we do?

EMPLOYEE / ASSISTER(S)

a little strengthCould is a good choice for offering ideas to someone else who will be the decision maker, especially to someone of higher rank  (a boss) in the descision making process.

COULD

We could wait a few minutes to see if the power comes back on. Or we could go outside and work.

We don't have Internet access, but we could work ouside and pick up access from the building next door.

We could take our lunch breaks earlier.  Perhaps, the power will be back in 30 minutes.

We could call the electricity company and complain.

BOSS / DECISION MAKER

strongerShould expresses what the speaker feels is morally right or most expedient for the situation.  Should is used by the person who is the decision maker in a particular situation.

SHOULD

We should keep working.  Let's go outside for a while. Do we still have Internet access?

OK. Let's try that. If the power doesn't come back on within an hour, you all should work from home.

No. We need to get this done before noon. We should keep on working.

the strongestI can call them, but it probably won't do any good.  They really must do something about these constant power outages.

 

expedient  (adj.) – fit or suitable for the purpose; producing the desired result; proper under the circumstances
rank (n.) – a relative position of standing (social, military, corporate,etc.); class, status, subordinate-superior, junior-senior

 

 

 

Questions, Hypotheticals, Hesitators

EMPLOYEE / ASSISTER(S)

Using question forms (Do you think, Why don't we, etc.), past tense modal forms (could, might) and "hesitators" (possibly, perhaps, maybe, etc.) makes it clear that the speaker is not trying to take the position of decision maker.

OTHER WORDING

weakDo you think we ought to wait a few minutes to see if the power comes back on? Or we perhaps could go outside and work.

weakWe don't have Internet access, but I suppose we could work ouside and pick up WiFi from the building next door.

a little strongerWhy don't we take our lunch breaks earlier.  Perhaps, the power will be back in 30 minutes.

weakYou might want to call the electricity company and complain.

BOSS / DECISION MAKER

Using semi-modals such as had better and ought to express stronger judgment, yet less than using must.  See Modal Revfor a comparison from weak to strong: could to must.

OTHER WORDING

strongerWe ought to keep working.  Let's go outside for a while. Do we still have Internet access?

strongerOK. Let's try that. If the power doesn't come back on within an hour, you all will have to work from home.

strongerNo. We need to get this done before noon. We had better keep on working.

the strongestI can call them, but it probably won't do any good.  They really need to do something about these constant power outages.

 

Also see Ought to  and Had Better

Relative strength and weakness depends on tone of voice, body language, and other social circumstances.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grammar Notes

Traditional and Linguistic Description

Advanced

 

 

TRADITIONAL & ESL LINGUISTIC
AZAR HUDDLESTON

could expresses a weak degree of certainty  (may, might, could) (Azar 10.1-4)

  • possibility
    • modal → He could be sick.   (possibility – 50% degree of certainty);
    • past modal modal → He could have been sick.   (possibility – < 50% degree of certainty)
    • negative modal → He couldn't be sick.   (possibility – 99% degree of certainty)
  • past modal Tom could lift the box. Tom said he could speak French.  (ability)
  • polite request Could you help me?
  • suggestion (an option; one of several ideas) →  You could ask a different doctor. (20-4)

should expresses advisability and 90% certainty (expectation)

  • certainty/expectaion → She should have done better. (should, ought to, had better) (10-4)
  • advisability → I should study.  I should have studied. (past) ranges from a suggestion to statement about responsibility or duty
  • in conditionals → If any one should call, let me know. (in a conditional statement to indicate less certainty)
  • in reported speech → He said that I should call them.

 

can / could  "Mood and Modality" ( 3 §9)

  • possibility (epistemic) → weak commitment → He can't have done it.(neg. only) / He could be the killer. [possibility]
  • possibility (deontic ) → He can have one more cookie. [permission]
  • possibility (dynamic) (3 §9.3.3)
    • You can always say "no". [reasonable/ acceptable]
    • Rain can get in. [circumstantial possibility]
    • Dogs can bite. [existenitial]
    • He could set a record today. [potential ability]
    • He can / could speak Swahili. [actualized ability]
  • backshift → He said he could speak Swahili. [actualized ability]  He thought that Valjean could be the killer. [possibility]
  • polite form–distancing ("modally remote preterite") → Could you help me?  (3 §9.8.3)
     

should expresses medium strength modality  (Huddleston 3 §9.4) 
medium strength = probable, likely, appear, seem

  • possibility (epistemic) → The train should come at noon. [probably]
  • necessity (deontic) → One should always tell the truth.  We should leave soon.

epistemic – what the speaker believes is probable; likelihood based on inference
deontic – what the speaker feels is right morally or feels is right for the sake of expediency (3 §9.2.2)
 

SWAN BIBER

can/ could  (Swan 123-5)

  • ability
    • presentI can read Italian. (knowledge, skill, strength)  
    • past →  I could read quickly.  He said he could read Italian. (past)
  • common or typical → It can be hot here in summer.
  • possible in the situationWe can go to Athens.
  • soft suggestionWe could try a different approach.
  • unrealized pastWe could have gone to Athens, but we didn't
  • chances (possibility) → It could rain this afternoon. (122.8)
  • permissionCould we have some cake?  (more polite than can) (124)
  • requests, orders, and suggestionsCould we have some cake?  (124.6)
  • criticismYou could have told me you were dating my girl.
  • indirect speechI asked if they could give me some help. 

 

should (518-21)

  • obligationsEveryone should wear seat belts. (It's good or important to do.)  (should, ought)
  • probablilityHe should arrive soon. (It is logical or normal.)  
  • pastI thought I should call him. (within a clause) 
  • past events that did not happenI should have called him, but I forgot.
  • in case → Should you need help, please call.
  • It's important/surprising that… shouldIt's surprising that you should say that.

 

can / could (Biber 6.6.4.1)

permission / possibility / ability: can, could, may, might 

Could and might are much more common expressing logical possibility than permission or ability.

In contrast to the typical functions of can, the modal could usually marks logical possibility in conversation, expressing a greater degree of uncertainty or tentativeness.  That could be her.  It could be anything you choose.

Epistemic Stance.modal Verb in extrinsic sense Without… collaboration there could be interference… (Biber 973)

 

should  ( 6.6.4.2) 

obligation / necessity: must, should, had better, have (got) to, need to ought to, be supposed to

Each modal can have two types of meaning:

  • intrinsic actions and events that humans (or other agents) control directly: permission, obligation, volition (or intention)
  • extrinsic logical status of events or states; assessments of likelihood: possibility, necessity, or prediction

 

 

 

Resources

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 1

Offering Solutions

light switch
 

 

My electricity bill was too high. How can I save money?  

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "Check" or the "Check 1-6" button.

1.

2.

3.

4.
(seal (v.) – close)

5.

6.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 2

Offering Solutions

gas pump
 

 

Gas costs too much.  I can't afford to fill my car anymore! 

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "Check" or the "Check 6-10" button.

 

7.

8.

9.

10.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice 3

Offering Solutions

car wreck
 

 

I had a car accident.  My car is wrecked.  I can't go to work. 

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "Check" or the "Check 11-15" button.

 

11.

12.

13.

14.

15.