Difference between Could and Would

Published on December 1, 2016

It’s difficult to put a finger on the difference between “Could you please move to the other side?” and “Would you please move to the other side?” The words “could” and “would” are two of the most confused modals in the English language. In some cases they may be interchangeable, but they are still two different words with different uses. In order to explain how different the two modals are, we will discuss their respective uses in this article.

Definitions

Could vs Would

The modal could is the past tense of can. It expresses:

  1. Past ability – I could hold my breath for two minutes when I was ten years old.
  2. Possibility – Tom could get hurt for doing crazy stunts.
  3. Impossibility (that happened in the past) –  She said she threw her $100,000 necklace away because she did not like it. She could not be serious.
  4. Suggestion – You could take the bus to the town.
  5. Polite request – Could I borrow a pen?
  6. Asking for permission (formal) – Ma’am, could I go home now?

Would

Would is the past tense of will. It indicates:

  1. Repeated past action – When I was 16, I would spend the whole day at the beach with my friends. 
  2. An opinion when the speaker is uncertain (polite) – I would say letter “c” is the right answer.
  3. Preference – I would rather buy the red one.
  4. Something that one would want to do (polite) – I would like to use my coupon for this purchase.
  5. Polite request – Would you mind if I move the chair?
  6. Offer or invitation – Would you like to have a glass of water?

Could vs Would

We have just shown the uses and examples of the two modals. What, then, is the difference between could and would?

While both modals are used to express polite requests (thus the statements “Could you please move to the other side?” and “Would you please move to the other side?” are both correct), the two are vastly different when it comes to their other uses. “Could” expresses a past ability, possibility, impossibility, suggestion, and permission, while “would” expresses a repetition of a past action, an offer or invitation, opinion, preference, or an action that the speaker wants to do. 

Comparison Chart

Could Would

Used to express a suggestion

Used to express what the speaker wants to do

Used to ask for permission

Used to give an offer or invitation
Indicates a past ability

Indicates a repeated past action

Indicates a possibility

Used to express an opinion

Indicates an impossibility

Used to express a preference