Modal verbs can versus could
December 12, 2006 6:20 PM   Subscribe

English grammar: 'could be Xing' versus 'can be Xing' -- how can we explain why one is correct and one isn't?

(Somebody fire up the languagehat signal!)

I'm trying to figure out a reasonably succinct structural way explain why one of these is just fine, but one isn't.

We're using modals here to express probability or guessing. Scenario: you call your wife at home, but there's no answer. You guess that she might be in the bathroom, and express it by saying "She could be taking a shower." I say this is correct.

Saying "She can be taking a shower" in this situation, I call incorrect, but I can't seem to hit on any plausible explanation for why, other than that it's just common usage. That's a good enough answer, perhaps, but I'd like to actually understand what's happening here, structurally. It could be that my brain is just wobbly today, and I'll figure it out as soon as I post this, but it's driving me a bit nuts.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
In English "she can be taking a shower" implies that she is able to take a shower and not that she is possibly in the process.

Honestly with proper english either option is probably acceptable although I'm no expert.
posted by Octoparrot at 6:26 PM on December 12, 2006


In English "she can be taking a shower" implies that she is able to take a shower

Thanks, but, no it doesn't, not in the continuous/progressive form. That would also be grammatically 'incorrect'.

'She can take a shower' -- said of someone who's wheelchair-bound and has a special shower enclosure, for example -- in the present simple is OK, to express ability, but that's not what I'm asking.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:31 PM on December 12, 2006


"Could be taking a shower" is correct, because it uses the subjunctive mood. You don't know whether she's taking one or not, so you use the subjunctive form to express possibility. "Could" (in this case) is the subjunctive form of "can."

The problem in English is that people aren't very well schooled in subjunctive forms. That's why one often hears "If he WAS a policeman, he'd be happy" instead of "If he WERE a policeman, he'd be happy." In some cases, the lines have blurred a lot.

But it's nice that most people get this one right!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:32 PM on December 12, 2006


I've never heard can be Xing. Can you provide examples of when "Can be Xing" is right? Maybe my mind is going blank, but I would use could no matter what...
posted by jesirose at 6:33 PM on December 12, 2006


Damn, now you've got me googling for grammar. Apparently, could and can are modal auxiliary verbs. Here's one explanation (from down the page a bit):

The modal auxiliary can is used to express theoretical possibility:
American automobile makers can make better cars if they think there's a profit in it.

The modal auxiliary could is used to express present possibility:
We could always spend the afternoon just sitting around talking.
posted by Dasein at 6:35 PM on December 12, 2006


If we are hypothesizing about what might be true, we use could, not can. So, "could be showering."

Of course, in common usage people similarly swap might and may and no one seems to get confused (not in court, anyway and I guess those professionals are reasonably good communicators). I think you could get away with "can" in this instance, but definitely could is the default option for the simple reason given in my first line.

If we were hypothesizing about something that is generally possible or not "Can the sun rise in west," for example, then in the further discussion, if we slipped into the -ing form, we might use the alternate "can be rising" because we are speaking generally, rather than hypothesizing about one event such as the wife in the shower at the current moment.
posted by Listener at 6:36 PM on December 12, 2006


Shoot. I meant to preview. Sorry. Wanted to add that I only used court as an example because that is where I hear the may/might swap all the time. Not that lawyers have weird English or anything.
posted by Listener at 6:38 PM on December 12, 2006


I've never heard can be Xing. Can you provide examples of when "Can be Xing" is right?

That's what I'm saying, jesirose: it isn't!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:40 PM on December 12, 2006


If it isn't right, then what's your take on this bit of dialogue?

Mr. A: This can't be happening!

Mr. B: It can be happening, because it is happening.
posted by pmbuko at 6:57 PM on December 12, 2006


The problem in English is that people aren't very well schooled in subjunctive forms. That's why one often hears "If he WAS a policeman, he'd be happy" instead of "If he WERE a policeman, he'd be happy." In some cases, the lines have blurred a lot.

It's called language change.

posted by gauchodaspampas at 7:07 PM on December 12, 2006


I've never heard can be Xing. Can you provide examples of when "Can be Xing" is right?

"She can be taking a shower and watching TV at the same time."
or
"She can be taking a shower while I get dressed."
Both are a little clunky, and could be expressed by "She can take a shower...", but this way seems to emphasize the element of time/synchronicity.

But as to the original question, I think Dasein has it nailed.
posted by katemonster at 7:16 PM on December 12, 2006


Here are some 'can be Xing' that are correct... but I think they're cheating.

[Dealing with children] can be tiring.
[Difficult problems] can be perplexing.
[Jokes] can be amusing.
[Hot chicks] can be ravishing.

The gerunds are sort of different than in the shower case...

'My wife can be showering.' (When thought of in the same way as the above forms, it seems as though showering is an intrinsic quality of the wife. Substitute with ravishing/appalling/perplexing to see the discrepancy.)

Maybe 'can be Xing' (in the showering way) isn't ever correct, but we're familiar with the forms I listed above, so they sound almost ok to the ear initially.
posted by sentient at 7:28 PM on December 12, 2006


She can be a star pianist, if only she practices.

If you have a WonderSpa, you can be relaxing within minutes of getting home.

Both of these sound okaaay, though a little awkward. Both could be infected by a stereotyped kind of speech that I think of as "advertising speak".

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it, today:
Can is used to express ability ("I can speak English," meaning "I am able to speak English" or "I know how to speak English") or, in some dialects, permission or willingness ("Can I use your phone?", meaning "Do I have your permission to use your phone?"; "Can you pass me the cheese?" meaning "Are you willing to pass me the cheese?" or "Please pass me the cheese"). It is also used to express a general possibility ("There can be a very strong rivalry between siblings," meaning "There is sometimes a very strong rivalry between siblings"). The negative of can is the single word cannot (or can't).

Could has at least three distinct functions. First, it can often replace can, although generally it gives the phrase a more conditional tone. For example, "I can help you with your work" suggests that the speaker is ready and willing to help, whereas "I could help you with your work" gives a more tentative sense of ability to help. In this sense, could is often used like a conditional: "I could help you if you helped yourself."

Second, could functions as a kind of past tense for can, though could doesn't function grammatically like any regular past simple verb.

Third, could carries the same meaning as might or may in the present. That is, could suggests that something is a possibility. For instance, John is not in the office today, he could be sick. In this phrase, might or may would carry the same meaning. Note that can in the negative carries the same idea as couldn't in this sense: "He can't have left already; why would he want to get there so early?" Also note that when regarding potential futures actions could is not equivalent to might or may. "I might go to the mall later," doesn't have the same connotations as "I could go to the mall later," which suggests ability more than possibility.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:30 PM on December 12, 2006


sentient writes "The gerunds are sort of different than in the shower case..."

There are no gerunds in either case. A gerund (in English) is an -ing form of a verb that acts like a noun. In your examples, the -ing words are adjectives (e.g. "the ravishing chicks"; I'm not sure if there's a specific term for these). In stavros' case, the -ing form isn't a gerund, but a present participle.

I agree that "could" is merely the proper conjugation for the present progressive/continuous in the subjunctive mood. It just happens to be one of those cases where the special conjugation for the subjunctive has stuck. Similar to the past progressive: "I could have met with you" as opposed to "I can have met with you".
posted by mr_roboto at 7:56 PM on December 12, 2006


Dee Xtrovert has it; this is an issue of subjunctive vs. indicative mood.

The reason that were as a subjunctive in the singular is (like a lot of English inflections) on its way out is that subjunctives mimic the preterite plural, and pairing a singular subject with a plural-seeming verb creates cognitive dissonance for many English-speakers. The other subjunctive auxiliaries don't have that problem since their preterite singular and plural forms are identical.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:56 PM on December 12, 2006


Mr. B: It can be happening, because it is happening.

Oooh, good one!

pmbuko, I'd have to say (and this is why I'm looking for clarification) is that in the function/sense I'm expressing in my example above is the modal use of probability, where your example is one of ability/potentiality (ie 'circumstance allows X to be happening'), so I'm still stuck, but perhaps closing in on something.

sentient, I'd say that your '-ing' forms are present participles being used as adjectives, and so different from my problematical present continuous/progressive example. Nice one, though.

If you have a WonderSpa, you can be relaxing within minutes of getting home.

This one is getting closer, but also, as you mention, kind of clumsy. Also, it's the First Conditional, and is referring to future potential/probability/ability rather than present ongoing action like my example.

But as to the original question, I think Dasein has it nailed.

Well, again, no. I knew already and stated that we're dealing with modals here, and Dasein (with all due respect) is giving examples in the present simple, which again, is not the problem here -- it's the continuous/progressive (be taking, be eating, be Xing) ongoing action sense that is causing me the difficulties.

I don't want to sound cranky here -- I appreciate all of your help in trying to zero in on what's going on here.

Perhaps we can just say that the modal verb 'can' is not usable to express probability, in a continuous/progressive sense, for the present. This may well be connected to the fact that in can + verb1 verb patterns, verb1 cannot be either the infinitive or gerund form, but only the basic verb form. If that's so, I can't see the connection.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:05 PM on December 12, 2006


It just happens to be one of those cases where the special conjugation for the subjunctive has stuck.

As I mentioned in the original question, I had a feeling that might be the case, unsatisfying as it is.

subjunctives mimic the preterite plural, and pairing a singular subject with a plural-seeming verb creates cognitive dissonance for many English-speakers. The other subjunctive auxiliaries don't have that problem since their preterite singular and plural forms are identical.

'struth. When I teach this kind of thing to my students, I always mention that many native speakers these days will actually make 'mistakes' (*hides from the descriptivist lash*) when using these kinds of forms.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:08 PM on December 12, 2006


Sorry, I see that Dee Xtrovert also mentioned that upthread.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:13 PM on December 12, 2006


When I teach this kind of thing to my students, I always mention that many native speakers these days will actually make 'mistakes' (*hides from the descriptivist lash*) when using these kinds of forms.

Kids these days, wilfully refusing to put dative endings on their adjectives as the gods intended! (*hides from prescriptivist backlash*) But seriously, they just love it when I tell them that the easiest way to correct comma splices is to move to England.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:11 PM on December 12, 2006


One way to look at it is through the concept of distance. Let's say can is the 'first form' (closest to you in terms of temporal/social distance) and could is the 'second form' (further away from you in term of temporal/social distance).

Whether one uses the first form or the second form depends entirely on that person's "feel" of that distance.

Examples:

"I can walk on my hands." (close temporal proximity)
vs
"When I was 5, I could walk on my hands." (distant)

"Can I have some tea?" (close social proximity)
vs
"Could I have some tea, please?" (distant)

Things get interesting when this distance is applied to proximity to reality (i.e., probability). As you're in TEFL I'm sure you're aware of the dreaded "first," "second" and "third" conditional forms as a teaching tool. These categories, while perhaps useful for beginners to understand the syntax, offer a limited view of the full range of what's possible.

However:

"I can go to the party if you'll lend me your car." ("first conditional," close proximity to reality)
vs.
"I could go to the party if you'd lend me your car." ("second conditional," distant)

And--I'm finally getting to your question here, sorry for the lesson--it is indeed possible to use "can be Xing" if the situation feels right.

Example:

"How are we going to finish this project on time? We're screwed!"
"Oh come on, you're wasting time right now worrying instead of doing. Look, I can be typing while you're dictating, right?"

This is perfectly natural and acceptable. The difference? The speaker deemed that situation to be close to his/her reality.

Consider:

"How are we going to finish this project on time? We're screwed!"
"Pffft. I really don't know. Maybe I could be typing while you're dictating, but.. would that really save us time?"

Less secure in this instance. With the example you gave, I think the very act of conjecturing is distant from one's reality, therefore only the second form is acceptable, or, rather, we're used to hearing only the second form in these instances. But even in that example, how about:

"She can't possibly be taking a shower at this time of night!"
"No, no, she can be taking a shower actually, she hates taking showers in the morning!"

Granted, the context is necessary for this to make perfect sense, but I'm just using it as an illustration of how the speaker's interpretation of the situation is key to understanding why one form was used and not the other.

errrg, I'm really sorry for the condescending TEFL tone--hope you didn't take offense; it's just the way I've explained this countless times and I just get into a mode.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 7:44 AM on December 13, 2006


"Could be taking a shower" is correct, because it uses the subjunctive mood. ... "Could" (in this case) is the subjunctive form of "can."

No, no, no, no. English does not have a functioning subjunctive; it has fossilized pellets that show where a subjunctive once lived and thrived in formulas like "if he were," but that has nothing to do with this. Could is a modal, formally the past tense of can but used quite differently (as LobsterMitten's Wiki quote shows).

As for the question, I know you don't want to hear this, but that's just the way it is. You can develop a pseudogrammatical formulation if it helps you deal with it, but the fact is that under normal circumstances (i.e., other than in contextual examples like war wrath of wraith's) can is not used with the "be -ing" form of the verb. It could perfectly well be; we could, in an alternate universe of English, say "she can be taking a shower" instead of "she could be taking a shower" or "she might be taking a shower," but we don't. Most attempts at grammatical "rules" are simply fancy ways to describe an observed fact; they don't tell you why things are the way they are, and they can't, because there is no reason in the desired sense, any more than there is a reason we say dog instead of hound for most purposes. We used to say hound exclusively; sometime in the Middle Ages we started preferring dog, and never looked back. Why? Who knows? That's why descriptivists prefer a good description of the facts of usage to attempts to control it.
posted by languagehat at 7:59 AM on December 13, 2006


As usual, the 'hat is right. There can be shadings of likelihood (or formality) with can/could, but to do a "can be xing" takes some yoga, as war wrath of wraith was kind enough to show.

(Another good weird one is the suggestion/order word change: "I recommend that he study harder.")
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:07 PM on December 13, 2006


As for the question, I know you don't want to hear this, but that's just the way it is.

No, like I said, I had a feeling that might be the case.

That's why descriptivists prefer a good description of the facts of usage to attempts to control it.

Yeah, I'm with you at least part of the way there. My goal here was not only to figure out how to describe what was happening, but make some headway towards understanding why, not to reinforce or impose arbitrary rules with arcane names (which evidence on the ground here in Korea clearly shows helps students of English-as-she-is-spoken little, if at all).

Thanks, everyone, for your help.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:11 PM on December 13, 2006


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