Are can and could interchangeable in probabilistic situation?


There was a scenario in which I and my co-worker were finding a piece of laminate, and then my co-worker said "it could be in the racks". Then I asked him can we say "it can be in the racks" and he said that both mean the same. I asked this to other co-workers (all of them are native Aussie and one is from England) and they said the same.

Even with different scenarios like someone called you and you couldn't recognise him then you can say "it can be John" or "it could be John". I asked three or four of my co-workers and they said in all scenarios where possibility is involved "can" and "could" are synonyms.

I always thought that "could" signify a greater uncertainty than "can". Also, this post completely rejects the usage of "can" in specific situations which is even more strange.


Posted 2018-05-21T12:26:34.810

Reputation: 1 693

Yes, in a situation like that, you can say: It could be in the racks, it might be in the racks, it can be in the racks. That is the same across all varieties of English. If the question is: Where the heck can or could it be? The answer is: It can be or it could or even might be in the racks. Can is fine. I am a native speaker and might very well say; can in response to can, but I also might say could in response to can. – Lambie – 2018-05-21T12:31:33.000

@Lambie What is the difference between my example and the bag example in this question?

– user31782 – 2018-05-21T12:35:03.493

That question does not use can in the question. Unless can is used in the question, you should stick to could or might in the answer. – Lambie – 2018-05-21T12:43:42.107



It can be in the racks could be paraphrased "there is nothing to prevent it being in the racks" and it would be understood to mean "the racks would be a good place to look since it would be quite normal for it to be there".

It could be in the racks could be paraphrased as "there is a chance it is in the racks" and it would be understood to mean "the racks would be a place to look since there's a possibility it will be there".

In practical contexts the upshot of either remark is to search the racks.


Posted 2018-05-21T12:26:34.810

Reputation: 116 610

Does it have anything to do with specific or general situation? This post suggests that in specific case you can't use can, but as you explained if we want to convey the capability of something to be in some place we can use can.

– user31782 – 2018-05-22T11:03:53.707

I think it is simply a matter of likelihood. can be in the racks says there's a decent chance it's in the racks whereas could be in the racks offers the racks only as a possibility. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2018-05-22T11:31:37.260