How could / can I help you?

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tigerduck

Senior Member
German / Switzerland
Hello, I work as an English teacher in Switzerland.

I usually teach my students in Business English the phrase 'How can I help you?' One student wrote in an excercise 'How could I help you?' Is this correct, too?
 
  • Bienvenidos

    Senior Member
    USA
    English
    Hello,

    I don't think it's that odd to say "how could I help you?", but the more common, as you have taught, is "how can I help you?".

    Examples:

    Customer: Hello!
    Employee: Good morning, how could I help you today?

    Customer: Hello!
    Employee: Good morning, how can I help you today?

    There's something "different" about saying "how could I help you?", but in my opinion, it's acceptable. :)

    Saludos y Suerte
    Bienvenidos
     

    maxiogee

    Banned
    English
    Employee A: How could I help you today?
    Customer: You could walk my dog, babysit my children and bring my elderly mother to her dental appointment!
    Employee: Don't be ridiculous, this is a car sales showroom!

    Employee B: How can I help you today?
    Customer: You can show me a brochure for the XYZ Coupé!
     

    jokker

    Senior Member
    Chinese/Taiwan
    maxiogee said:
    Employee A: How could I help you today?
    Customer: You could walk my dog, babysit my children and bring my elderly mother to her dental appointment!
    Employee: Don't be ridiculous, this is a car sales showroom!
    You are good at telling jokes.:D

    Seriously, back to the topic, does this joke mean that it's too polite to use "could" in such sentences?

    But doesn't it a good thing being polite?:confused:

    For example,
    Could you give me a hand?
    Could you tell me what it means?
     

    rsweet

    Senior Member
    English, North America
    GenJen54 said:
    What I tend to hear - and use - more often is:

    How may I help you?

    At least on "this side of the pond" it's considered the most polite.
    I agree with GenJen54. It's more polite and grammatically more correct.
     

    CAMullen

    Senior Member
    US, English
    I think "How may I" means "In what ways do I have your permission to" and "How can I" means "In what ways am I able to."

    "How could I" immediately brought to my mind "In what ways was I able to."
     

    yojan

    Member
    English - England
    Good Evening,

    How could I help you?
    Despite this being accepted in common speech, it is grammatically innacurate. It is true, it gives a more polite atmosphere when saying ''How could I help you?''. But strictly speaking grammatically, the use of ''could'' is in respect to the conditional of the verb ''can''.

    ''I could help you if I had the time.''

    Now the ''could'' is correctly used as you are implying an action which ''could'' have happened if the conditions were right. Saying ''How could I help you?'' is then incorrect as it refers to no condition which did not occur.

    But as everyone mentioned, you will get away with it practically everytime, whether be natives or not.
     

    river

    Senior Member
    U.S. English
    Svartvik & Sager in their university grammar (1996) claim that may and might are often considered more "correct" than can/could, but that "in fact can and could are normally preferred in informal educated usage, especially in British English." (p. 123).
     

    maxiogee

    Banned
    English
    jokker said:
    You are good at telling jokes.:D
    Seriously, back to the topic, does this joke mean that it's too polite to use "could" in such sentences?
    But doesn't it a good thing being polite?:confused:

    For example,
    Could you give me a hand?
    Could you tell me what it means?
    Could is not the right word for the sentence offering assistance.
    It was nothin gto do with being 'polite' - it was to do with the meaning of 'could'.
    Could and can are not interchangeable. Nor are can and may.
    The precise meanings of these words are becoming confused (or maybe always have been) by those who don't bother to check them.

    When asking a customer "— I help you?"
    Could is too open to whim and nuance … (see my earlier wordplay upon the meaning of 'could')
    Can is too restricted … (how does a customer know if you have the knowledge, or expertise, or even the company's permission to help customers?)
    May is just right. You are offering your services.
     

    bartonig

    Senior Member
    UK English
    river said:
    Svartvik & Sager in their university grammar (1996) claim that may and might are often considered more "correct" than can/could, but that "in fact can and could are normally preferred in informal educated usage, especially in British English." (p. 123).
    Concerning the specific sentence How can I help you?
    I agree with most with River. However, if when I hear may or might used (which is rare these days) I think that the speaker has learnt their English watching dated films or reading dated novels. In modern British English we say can or, could.
     
    bartonig said:
    Concerning the specific sentence How can I help you?
    I agree with most with River. However, if when I hear may or might used (which is rare these days) I think that the speaker has learnt their English watching dated films or reading dated novels. In modern British English we say can or, could.

    Sorry to disagree with you Bartonig. No employee would ever say ''How could I help you?'' to a customer.

    I had a brief time in the retail trade. At the one and only staff training session on offer we were told to acknowledge the customer by saying ''Good morning/afternoon Sir/Madam - should you require any help I shall be pleased to be of assistance.'' However, this was simply to let any would be shop-lifters know that there presence had been noted.

    Genuine customers who approached my department were always asked, ''May I help you?''

    I am English born and bred. I certainly didn't learn my language from watching dated films. As for reading dated novels - guilty as charged, except that the ''dated novels'' I have read were all written by the great classic authors.


    LRV
     

    tigerduck

    Senior Member
    German / Switzerland
    Thank you so very much to everybody who opined on my question. It is much appreciated.

    My question led to different answers which I find interesting.

    Please feel free to comment further in this thread - I will certainly have a look at ALL responses.
     
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