could smell (or similar sense verbs)

I learned today that British people for events in the past and sensory verbs like to have 'could' precede. Have Americans encountered this? Can British users explain? Is there a reason you blur the distinction I mention below, between performance(actuality) and abilty (capability)?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/learnitv123.shtml

Can / could with verbs of perception
In British English, we normally use can or could with verbs of perception such as see, hear, taste, feel, smell, when American English will often use these verbs independently of can or could. Compare the following:

When I went into the garden, I could smell the cherry wood burning on the camp fire. {BE}
When I went into the garden, I smelled the cherry wood burning on the camp fire.
{AE}
In particular, my question is this. "Could" seems superfluous in cases as above. I wonder why you use it. I have no objection to 'could smell', IF there is a reason to stress ability or capability. "The murderer buried the corpse, but not deeply enough. I could still smell it through the floorboards." "The fat person mostly blocked my view, but by standing on tiptoe, I could see."

For present tense there's a clear difference: "Do you see the leader of the parade?" versus "Can you see the leader...?", for the answer to the second might be, "Yes, I can see" (versus, "Yes, I see him). Transposing this to past, why is there any difference?

In answer to "Did you see the leader of the parade?" why would you say, "Yes, I could see him" as opposed to "Yes, I saw him--out there in front."
 
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  • Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    In answer to "Did you see the leader of the parade?" why would you say, "Yes, I could see him" as opposed to "Yes, I saw him--out there in front."
    Indeed, why would I? I wouldn't. You didn't ask me if I could see the leader, you asked me if I saw him.

    If I go into the garden I say "I can smell the roses". I don't say "I smell the roses". Do you? That's why I am likely to say "When I went into the garden I could smell the roses".
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    If you don't know that there are roses but the scent is detectable, you can say "I smell roses." (No "the" as they aren't specified - it could be someone's rose perfume.)
    If know there are roses, then you either can or can't smell them. I see the roses, but I can't smell roses. I can smell the roses.
    "I smell the roses." would mean something different. Whenever I go into my garden, I make a point of sticking my nose into the flowers.
     
    Do I? Yes, "I smell roses" or "I smell the roses." Why would I introduce the issue of capability, unless you did:
    You: "I just planted my first rose bush in this garden; I don't know if you can smell it."
    "Yes, I can smell it."

    Indeed, why would I? I wouldn't. You didn't ask me if I could see the leader, you asked me if I saw him.

    If I go into the garden I say "I can smell the roses". I don't say "I smell the roses". Do you? That's why I am likely to say "When I went into the garden I could smell the roses".
     

    sumelic

    Senior Member
    English - California
    Hi!
    It isn't just British people, at any rate, as I'm an American and find this kind of sentence unremarkable. You talk about blurring the line between performance and ability, but sometimes using the simple form of a sensory verb blurs the line between voluntary and involuntary action. So as Myridon mentioned, saying "I smelled the flowers" might give the impression that I was sniffing at them.
    In other cases it has to do more with duration, I think. I would say, "I saw a dog" if it was a momentary event, while I would use "I could see a dog" for a longer lasting state of affairs (I'm a bit unsure about how I explained this and how much of a distinction this is, but I certainly wouldn't reserve "I could see a dog" for the meaning "I was capable of seeing a dog".)
     
    That's an interesting point, about 'longer lasting states,' as in, "As I approached his house, I could see a dog." My guess is that British people are using 'could' in some other sense than capability, in the OP sentence,

    When I went into the garden, I could smell the cherry wood burning on the camp fire. {BE} {BBC example}

    Taking Andy's example:
    If I go into the garden I say "I can smell the roses". I don't say "I smell the roses". Do you? That's why I am likely to say "When I went into the garden I could smell the roses".
    Essentially, "I can smell the roses" means something like "I am in the process of smelling the roses." My hypothesis.


    Hi!
    It isn't just British people, at any rate, as I'm an American and find this kind of sentence unremarkable. You talk about blurring the line between performance and ability, but sometimes using the simple form of a sensory verb blurs the line between voluntary and involuntary action. So as Myridon mentioned, saying "I smelled the flowers" might give the impression that I was sniffing at them.
    In other cases it has to do more with duration, I think. I would say, "I saw a dog" if it was a momentary event, while I would use "I could see a dog" for a longer lasting state of affairs (I'm a bit unsure about how I explained this and how much of a distinction this is, but I certainly wouldn't reserve "I could see a dog" for the meaning "I was capable of seeing a dog".)
     
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