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could or can? Options
raymondaliasapollyon
Posted: Tuesday, February 23, 2021 2:30:00 AM
Rank: Advanced Member

Joined: 7/14/2020
Posts: 412
Neurons: 2,424
Hi,

I'm wondering whether "can" or "could" should be used in the following. If both are okay, what's the difference?
Does "can" mean the speaker still cannot find words to express his/her feelings, even after the event?

No words can/could express my feelings as I watched the patient dying in pain.

I'd appreciate your help.
thar
Posted: Tuesday, February 23, 2021 3:18:14 AM

Rank: Advanced Member

Joined: 7/8/2010
Posts: 23,708
Neurons: 96,171
There is no conditional here so this is simply present or past tense.

They can

They could

There are two actions.
You watched them. That was in the past.

But the other action is independent of that. It has to happen after the other event, but the attempt to describe your feelings could be in the past or now.

That is the time of trying to describe your feelings.

That could be in the past, when you tried to describe your feelings about that event:
I watched them die, and I couldn't describe my feelings. I couldn't tell anyone what I felt. No words could describe my feelings.


Or it could be in the present, as you are trying to describe your feelings about that event:
I watched them die, and I can't describe how that felt. I can't tell you how I felt, even now. No words can describe my feelings.

But
It is natural in English to soften statements, to make them less direct with an implied conditional.
Then it could be a present action.
[Even if I could talk about it, I would not be able to find the right words because they don't exist] no words could express how I felt.

In context it is
a) probably clear and
b) if it is not clear what time this action is happening, then the time is irrelevant.
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