"could" in narrative sentences

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ywf

Senior Member
Mandarin
As far as I know, the word "could" can be used in general questions to be polite when the speaker is asking for something. I was taught in school that "Could I borrow your pen?" is a more polite way than "Can I borrow your pen?" and something like that. But I'm not sure if the same rule applies to narrative sentences. For expmple, does "I hope you could do me a favour" sound more polite than "I hope you can do me a favour"?
Thanks in advance.
 
  • Elwintee

    Senior Member
    England English
    As far as I know, the word "could" can be used in general questions to be polite when the speaker is asking for something. I was taught in school that "Could I borrow your pen?" is a more polite way than "Can I borrow your pen?" and something like that. But I'm not sure if the same rule applies to narrative sentences. For expmple, does "I hope you could do me a favour" sound more polite than "I hope you can do me a favour"?
    Thanks in advance.
    No, I don't think it does. It just sounds a bit odd. To sound really polite (and to sound grateful-in-advance to the other person rather than thinking of one's own hope) you could say: "I should be grateful if you would do me a favour". 'Would' indicates that the other person might be 'willing' to do it. Having said that, I agree that "Could I [please] borrow your pen?" is also fine, in its own way.
     

    ywf

    Senior Member
    Mandarin
    Thank you very much, Elwintee, for your helpful pointer, it is clear to me now, but does "I hope you can do me a favour" work instead?
     

    Dimcl

    Senior Member
    Canadian English
    Does "I hope you can do me a favour" work instead?
    Yes, and that's how a native-speaker would say it. It's your use of "I hope" that makes all the difference. When you use "I hope you can", you are saying "I hope that you are capable of doing me a favour". You are not asking if he could do a favour or would do a favour - you are asking if he can do you a favour. Is he capable of doing so? Without the "I hope", I would use "Could you do me a favour?" It is polite and it leaves the door open for a negative response. By using "I hope", you are no longer leaving that little option open. The answer can still be "No, I can't" but "I hope you can do me a favour" is much more pointed while the whole phrase is still polite and respectful.
     

    ywf

    Senior Member
    Mandarin
    Thank you Dimcl for your great explanation! So "I hope you can do me a favour" is grammatically right but is more about capabilities than willingness. I think I was affected by native tone, in which they pretty much mean the exactly same thing.
     
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    Sedulia

    Senior Member
    **Literate** American English
    In America it would be better to say "I wonder if you can do me a favor" rather than "I hope." Of course "I hope" isn't wrong but it's not what people would say. "I wonder" is often used to ask politely. Do Brits not use it this way?
     

    Elwintee

    Senior Member
    England English
    In America it would be better to say "I wonder if you can do me a favor" rather than "I hope." Of course "I hope" isn't wrong but it's not what people would say. "I wonder" is often used to ask politely. Do Brits not use it this way?
    Just to confuse things hopelessly, I (a BE speaker) would naturally say "I wonder if you could do me a favour?". I think I assume that whatever I am asking of the person is within their capabilities, but I'm not so sure of their willingness!
     

    Katejo

    Senior Member
    English - UK
    As another BE speaker, I agree absolutely with Elwintee. It is better to say "Would you please ....?" With 'could' the person might answer with "Yes I could but I'm not going to". In practice more and more people do say could when they really mean would but that does not mean that it is correct!

    Katejo
     

    Sedulia

    Senior Member
    **Literate** American English
    So, in order of politeness, from less to more polite:

    Can you do me a favor?
    Could you do me a favor?
    I wonder if you can do me a favor.
    I wonder if you could do me a favor.
     
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