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  1. #1
    Abstract Idea is offline Key Member
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    Default Persistent use of "can" and "could" may irrate men - short digression on modal verbs

    There is this book I am reading, Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, by John Gray, which has some interesting passages:

    "5. Use Correct Wording. One of the most common mistakes in asking for support is the use of could and can in place of would and will. "Could you empty the trash?" is merely a question gathering information. "Would you empty the trash?" is a request.
    Women often use "could you?" indirectly to imply "would you?" As I mentioned before, indirect requests are a turn off. When used occasinally they certainly may go unnoticed, but persistently using can and could begins to irratate men."

    What I want to point out here is that the passage above is not directly about language itself. It is directed to English native speakers, who know pretty well the different nuances among those modal verbs. Specifically it tries to advise women how to get along well with men by using the correct modal verb.

    Certainly a careful understanding of this passage is useful for any ESL student.

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    philo2009 is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Persistent use of "can" and "could" may irrate men - short digression on modal ve

    Quote Originally Posted by ymnisky View Post
    There is this book I am reading, Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, by John Gray, which has some interesting passages:

    "5. Use Correct Wording. One of the most common mistakes in asking for support is the use of could and can in place of would and will. "Could you empty the trash?" is merely a question gathering information. "Would you empty the trash?" is a request.
    Women often use "could you?" indirectly to imply "would you?" As I mentioned before, indirect requests are a turn off. When used occasinally they certainly may go unnoticed, but persistently using can and could begins to irratate men."

    What I want to point out here is that the passage above is not directly about language itself. It is directed to English native speakers, who know pretty well the different nuances among those modal verbs. Specifically it tries to advise women how to get along well with men by using the correct modal verb.

    Certainly a careful understanding of this passage is useful for any ESL student.
    (N.B. The word is 'irritate'!)

    I'm not sure where the writer conducted his linguistic research, but I would say that, in general throughout the English-speaking world, men and women use 'could you' with equal frequency to phrase requests. It is quite simply more polite/less peremptory than 'would you', thus your use of it will depend on the relation between you and your addressee rather than on your gender!

  3. #3
    Abstract Idea is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Persistent use of "can" and "could" may irrate men - short digression on modal ve

    Quote Originally Posted by philo2009 View Post
    (N.B. The word is 'irritate'!)

    I'm not sure where the writer conducted his linguistic research, but I would say that, in general throughout the English-speaking world, men and women use 'could you' with equal frequency to phrase requests. It is quite simply more polite/less peremptory than 'would you', thus your use of it will depend on the relation between you and your addressee rather than on your gender!
    Let me defend the author a little bit here:
    Although the topic is language, as I said before, the text is not fundamentally about language. Nothing is ever stated about a possible linguist research performed by the writer. I will try to contextualize it futher:

    This is a kind of self-help or advising book. It is aimed to married couples eventually facing relational problems. In this passage, the author is addessing married women; advising them to use "would" instead of "could" in order to be more direct. When she says "could you do this or that?" to her husband, she is trying to be more polite, by not demanding a direct request. According to the author, repetitive use of this formula could irritate their husbands; he suggests them to be more direct requesting "would you do this or that?"

    I know this subject has been approached by the linguist Steven Pinker, although I haven't read his work yet.


    PS Concerning your "nota bene" I am sorry about that. I typed these lines yesterday night kind of sleepy and mispelled "irrated" and the worse "irrate" in the title - I do not know how to edit the title now, sorry about that. Thanks for pointing it out and forcing me to search what "N.B." meant.

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    Abstract Idea is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Persistent use of "can" and "could" may irrate men - short digression on modal ve

    Reading on the same book we find:

    "If a woman doesn't understand how certain language can affect men, she will get even more snarled. She becomes afraid to ask and starts saying 'Could you ... ' because she thinks she is being more polite. Though this works well on Venus, it doesn't work at all on Mars.
    On Mars it would be an insult to ask a man 'Can you empty the trash?' Of course he can empty the trash! The question is not can he empty the trash but will he empty the trash. After he has been insulted, he may say no just because you have irritated him."

    I simply cannot read passages like the one above without remembering old UsingEnglish long threads on modal verbs. I really had to rewrite it here to share with you all.

  5. #5
    Abstract Idea is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Persistent use of "can" and "could" may irrate men - short digression on modal ve

    Quote Originally Posted by clevermae View Post
    I'm interested to know what male native English speakers have to say about this. Really, guys, does it really irritate or annoy you? I am a female and I really don't see any big difference between the could/would usage as far as requests are concerned. I even think this is just semantics. But we never know how guys think and feel.
    I guess I understand the author's point of view, and I completely agree with him.

    As a male, I really see a difference when a woman uses "could you do this and that" or "would you do this and that." (oops, not a native speaker)

  6. #6
    Linguist__ is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: Persistent use of "can" and "could" may irrate men - short digression on modal ve

    I think it's funny that the author writes, "indirect requests are a turn off." This means that I should be turned on when a woman asks me directly "would you take out the rubbish?". Haha.

    I think it silly to call it a gender thing. Everyone uses 'can' and 'could' for 'will' and 'would'. Generally it's an indication of how much you want something done, rather than being indirect.

    Being properly indirect would be saying 'That rubbish is really starting to smell, dont you think?'. Either a man or women would ask this, and both the man or women on the receiving end would either say 'Yes, it is.' or 'are you asking me to take it out?'

    I don't think anyone really means 'can' when they ask 'can'. Most people are fairly good at judging other people's ability when it comes to thinks like taking out rubbish!

  7. #7
    Abstract Idea is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Persistent use of "can" and "could" may irrate men - short digression on modal ve

    Take a look at this interesting comparison:

    "Imagine a man proposing marriage to a woman. His heart is full, like the moon shining above. Kneeling before her, he reaches out to hold her hands. The he gazes into her eyes and gently says, 'Could you marry me?'
    Immediately the romance is gone. Using the c word he appears weak and unworthy. In that moment, he reeks of insecurity and low self-steem. If instead he said 'Would you marry me?' then both his strength and vulnerability are present. That is the way to propose."

    I think here the difference between "could" and "would" is undeniable.

  8. #8
    Linguist__ is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: Persistent use of "can" and "could" may irrate men - short digression on modal ve

    Quote Originally Posted by ymnisky View Post
    Take a look at this interesting comparison:

    "Imagine a man proposing marriage to a woman. His heart is full, like the moon shining above. Kneeling before her, he reaches out to hold her hands. The he gazes into her eyes and gently says, 'Could you marry me?'
    Immediately the romance is gone. Using the c word he appears weak and unworthy. In that moment, he reeks of insecurity and low self-steem. If instead he said 'Would you marry me?' then both his strength and vulnerability are present. That is the way to propose."

    I think here the difference between "could" and "would" is undeniable.
    When I asked my fiancée, I said 'will you marry me?' I must have been too direct.

    If the proposee (made up) says 'no' based on your use of 'c' and not 'w', then one wonders whether one should be propsosing to such a person!

  9. #9
    Raymott's Avatar
    Raymott is online now VIP Member
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    Default Re: Persistent use of "can" and "could" may irrate men - short digression on modal ve

    Quote Originally Posted by ymnisky View Post
    Take a look at this interesting comparison:

    "Imagine a man proposing marriage to a woman. His heart is full, like the moon shining above. Kneeling before her, he reaches out to hold her hands. The he gazes into her eyes and gently says, 'Could you marry me?'
    Immediately the romance is gone. Using the c word he appears weak and unworthy. In that moment, he reeks of insecurity and low self-steem. If instead he said 'Would you marry me?' then both his strength and vulnerability are present. That is the way to propose."

    I think here the difference between "could" and "would" is undeniable.
    But aren't you missing the point? (which you introduced)
    Or, perhaps more likely, the author is missing his own point.
    No one is denying that 'could' and 'would' are used differently. But he is claiming a gender distinction. Does he consider how a man would react to similar proposals using 'could' and 'would' and compare that to how a woman would react?
    And perhaps, to be fair, how a woman would react to a woman and a man to a man.

  10. #10
    Abstract Idea is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: Persistent use of "can" and "could" may irrate men - short digression on modal ve

    Quote Originally Posted by Raymott View Post
    But aren't you missing the point?
    As I said earlier, the book is aimed at couples with troublesome relationships.
    If the book is directed to both genders, particularly this part of the book is directed to women. The author tries to convince women of the subtle difference in these modals, specially would and could which are used interchangeably in some situations ("as far as requests are concerned," according to clevermae above).

    The author claims that women tend to see no difference in these two words ("could you close the door" = "would you close the door"), while men do. So women try to pass a message and men get a slightly different one. The last passage I quoted in my previous post was supposed to be an example to convince women of such difference (of course he changes to a situation where the difference is clear and undeniable).

    This is the last passage from the book which I will quote here:
    "When she says 'Could you empty the trash?' the message he receives is "If you can empty it then you should do it. I would do it for you!" From his point of view he feels it is obvious that he can do it."

    "I remember one woman in a seminar explaining the difference in Venusian terms. She said, 'At first I couldn't fell the difference between these two ways of asking. But then I turned it around. It feels very different to me when he says "No, I can't do it" versus "No, I will not do it." The "I will not do it" is a personal rejection. If he says, "I can't do it" then is is no reflection on me, it is just the he can't do it.' "

    In many threads here at UsingEnglish it is stated that "can is used for ability while could is used for possibility." In the quoted passage above, we see that although "could" is used for possibility, or for a polite request, the message receiver may use it as an excuse when he says to himself "It is obvious that I can do it, I simply won't do it." I guess it is something like "I know what 'could' means but, for my convenience, I will pretend it is simply the past tense of 'can' rather than a request." (my interpretation)

    See this example of mine:
    Ann: "Jack, could you the dishes today for me?"
    Jack: "Yep."
    later
    Ann: "Ann, you said you would do the dishes, remember?"
    Jack: "No, I didn't say I would do it, I said I could do it, that is, I had the ability to do it."
    Ann: "But 'could' is not related to ability, only 'can', haven't you seen it in that UsingEnglish forum you keep surfing all the time?"
    Jack: "Oh, you are right, dear. I said 'I could do it' meaning there was a remote possibility about it which, as you see, unfortunatelly, didn't come true."

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