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Grammar question: using "can" or "could"

Posted: Mon Jul 05, 2010 9:56 am
by hereinchina
I'm not sure if I should use the word "can" or "could" in the following sentence?
"If I won the lottery, I would quit my job faster than you can/could say Jackie Robinson."

Posted: Tue Jul 06, 2010 12:09 am
by ouyang
Good question. This complex sentence has two dependent clauses, but they have different relationships to the predicate. The tense of the conditional dependent clause determines the context of the main verb, and the tense of the complementary dependent clause should match that of the main verb.

"If I win the lottery, I will quit my job faster than you can say Jackie Robinson."

"If I won the lottery, I would quit my job faster than you could say Jackie Robinson."

"He runs faster than I do."
"He ran faster than I did."


Posted: Thu Jul 08, 2010 1:24 am
by Heath
By logical comparison with similar 'fast' things, I feel that we should use 'can'.

If I won the lottery, I would quit my job faster than...
* a cheetah runs / a cheetah would run
* it takes a door to slam shut / it would take a door to slam shut
* Forrest Gump ran / Forrest Gump would have run

I think.

Posted: Fri Jul 09, 2010 5:18 am
by Lorikeet
Well they both sound okay to me.

Posted: Sat Jul 10, 2010 1:17 am
by ouyang
they both sound okay to me
I don't think either one is grammatically incorrect. I think stylistically "could" works better with "would". Complementary sentences allow more flexibility in verb tense combinations than conditional complex sentences do.

"He is speaking faster than she did."

"He ate that ice cream faster than I can swallow a pill."

thanks for the help

Posted: Mon Jul 12, 2010 1:38 pm
by hereinchina
I want to thank you guys for your replies. :D


Posted: Mon Jul 19, 2010 6:32 pm
by LarryLatham
Hi folks,

I don't hang around so much anymore, but every now and then it's fun to pop in just to see what everyone's talking about these days. Sometimes it serves to keep the old brain waves pumping. :)

Hereinchina, your question is not really about grammar if you were expecting to find some sort of "rule" that would force the selection of one of your alternatives as opposed to the other. In your example, both "can" and "could" are grammatically correct, as Lorikeet has confirmed.

What you need to keep in mind is that language (any language) is formed by a speaker/writer to express a particular meaning, and that meaning, at the moment of forming, is precisely known only to the speaker/writer. So (s)he chooses the forms that best fit the meaning intended. The general point is,

"If I won the lottery, I would quit my job faster than you can say Jackie Robinson."


"If I won the lottery, I would quit my job faster than you could say Jackie Robinson."

...are both perfectly grammatical sentences, but they have slightly different meanings. The choice would be made by the speaker/writer according to what is in his or her mind at the precise moment of speaking or writing. So how would that choice be made?

Can and could are, of course, related and both express the concept of "possibility." You could paraphrase either of your sentences as, "If I won...faster than it is possible for you to say, "Jackie Robinson."" The problem for the speaker (and, incidentally, also for the hearer, since the hearer is tasked with interpreting the real and precise meaning of the speaker) is that there are several 'kinds' of possibility:

"Can you speak English?"...refers to ability.
"You can't smoke here."'s against the rules.
"Can you pass the salt?" ...request (Is it possible for you to...)

There are more 'kinds', but these will do to illustrate the point. It would be also "correct" for someone in particular speaking circumstances to say:

"Could you speak English?" the speaker might be referring to a particular time in the past that the hearer might have been talking about in a story. It could mean: "At that time, was it possible for you to speak English?" In addition, in another different usage situation, it might also be a polite request for someone to please use English.

"You couldn't smoke here."...again this might be a reference to an earlier time when smoking was forbidden.

"Could you pass the salt?" ...a perfectly good request, as was the other with "can," but this one is seen as "more polite." But when is politeness required? It is when your relationship with the hearer is less familiar, or more remote. "Can you pass the salt?" is perfectly good when you are speaking to your sister around the family table. But when you are a guest at another family's table, "Could you pass the salt?" would be more common because it acknowledges the remote nature of the relationship between speaker and hearer.

The general point is, "use can when there is no requirement for any sort of remoteness; use could when remoteness (of some sort) is needed or useful.

In your examples, I would explain it this way:

"If...than you can say Jackie Robinson." means "than it is possible for you, now, to say Jackie..."


"If...than you could say Jackie Robinson." means "than it is remotely possible for you ever, no matter how long you might practice, to say Jackie..."

Forgive me for such a long lesson on a seemingly simple question, Hereinchina, but your question actually is not so simple. "Remoteness" is a deep principle in the English language, and awareness of it ables you to make many choices between two alternatives in English with ease. Google "Michael Lewis" on your computer, and check out his delightful and very helpful book, The English Verb.

Larry Latham

Posted: Mon Jul 19, 2010 10:26 pm
by JuanTwoThree
Hey Larry. Nobody hangs about so much any more.

Posted: Mon Jul 19, 2010 10:40 pm
by LarryLatham
Nice to hear from you again, Juan. We've had many pleasant exchanges. Glad to see you're "hanging in."


Posted: Tue Jul 20, 2010 5:13 am
by Lorikeet
Nice to see you around, Larry. I read "The English Verb" a couple years ago, after hearing about it here. It made a lot of sense to me, and I decided to use the ideas to teach my high level students "another way" to look at the English verb. It went over some of their heads, but a lot of them found it very interesting.

Posted: Tue Jul 20, 2010 5:55 am
by LarryLatham
Hi Lorikeet.

I know what you mean. The English Verb is definitely a teacher's book, and not to be used with students, as you know. But the ideas in it are so good that you feel you'd like to pass them along to students. He (Michael Lewis) did write at least two--there may be more now, but I'm out of the loop--subsequent books that were aimed a bit more at working in the classroom, The Lexical Approach, and Implementing the Lexical Approach. But I don't think he was really interested in writing for the classroom as much as he wanted to educate teachers. Heaven knows, the teachers need it, as even a few minutes on this forum will illustrate. And the teachers found here represent mostly the cream of the crop.

There is quite a bit of controversy amongst teachers and also in the academic world about Lewis' ideas. That's way beyond my pay grade to pass judgment on, but I would say that for at least ten years I looked and looked for a single example of English that would not stand up to analysis using his ideas. I never found one, and I am still looking, though not professionally anymore.

You are certainly quite the veteran on this forum, although I see you now have some help monitoring the kids to keep them from flaming each other. There's nothing like putting a bunch of English teachers in one place and then tossing a sentence into their midst for parsing. You have to get out quick if you don't want to be mauled!


Posted: Wed Jul 21, 2010 12:36 am
by Stephen Jones
'faster than you could say' is keeping everything within the same hypothetical frame.

The difference in meaning is marginal.

Posted: Wed Jul 21, 2010 3:56 am
by LarryLatham
SJ, how great to see you again, and you're still as feisty as ever, I see.

I'm so glad you stopped by to help me make my point. You're quite right that the differences in meaning are "marginal," as you put it. But you do concede that there are differences in meaning. Yes, both can and could are related to 'possibility.' So both have very close to the same general, overall meaning. But the mere fact that they are not exactly the same word clearly means that a user would have to choose between them. Speakers don't just flip mental coins, do they? They wouldn't use "can" on even days, and "could" on odd days, would they? Of course not. They make rational choices, and the only basis for such choice is that the two words have different meanings, however slight. In any given speaking situation, one of them fits the speakers mental concept better than the other one does. And the choice is easily made. There usually is no hesitant pause in the conversation while the speaker considers carefully which word would better fit his meaning. He can make the choice on the fly, so to speak. So to me, and I hope to you as well, there can be no doubt that there exists a difference in meaning which is well understood by competent users of English.

Hope all is well with you, Steven. Are you in your house by now?


Posted: Wed Jul 21, 2010 9:29 am
by Sally Olsen
Missed you Larry. How is the book doing?

Posted: Wed Jul 21, 2010 5:16 pm
by LarryLatham
Hi Sally,

Great to hear from you.

Book? Well, I I kinda figured all three potential buyers could find other sources, probably. They might not do so badly right here on this forum. It just didn't look like a commercially viable project, Sally. WJSerson (remember him?), who was going to help me write it, and I decided that both of us could find something better to do with our time. For him, no doubt, that would be furthering his career. For me, it's more time for stretching out on a hammock here in the desert with a cold one.

I've missed you guys too.