Is the sentence “Could I smoke here?" ungrammatical?


The correct sentence is "Can I smoke here?", but I wonder why I can't use "could" in this question.


Posted 2018-10-01T15:21:06.347

Reputation: 61

3Actually, the correct sentence is "May I smoke here?" One presumes the person asking the question is capable of smoking, and is using "can" to mean "is allowed". – Monty Harder – 2018-10-01T20:48:26.797

1"Sure, if set on fire" came the answer.. +1 To Monty's comment, by the way - " 'can' suggests ability, 'may' suggests permission". If could is the equivalent of can (to you), you might still not be allowed to smoke there even if you had the ability (I.e. you were currently or had recently been on fire) – Caius Jard – 2018-10-02T08:11:57.290



Actually I think it's more what is idiomatic than what is grammatical. There is nothing wrong with, "Could I smoke here?" but it doesn't mean the same thing as, "Can I smoke here?"

"Could", in this context, is often a conditional. It implies you're asking if it's possible to do something, if some other condition is met. For example:

I know you don't like people smoking in your car, but it's been hours since my last cigarette. If I rolled down the window, could I smoke?

More on the differences between "could" and "can".

(Edit) as FumbleFingers points out, the actual conditional requirement can be unstated, or even something as basic as "... if I want to". "Could" merely implies that there is some conditional involved.

(Edit2) Muzer and others point out that could is often used as a slightly more deferential way to say can, in which case, "Could I smoke?" is perfectly natural. "May I smoke?" may be more common, though.


Posted 2018-10-01T15:21:06.347

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2I think the [required?] "conditional" could be merely implied, not explicitly stated. Which could in principle (in practice, so far as I'm concerned) be something as "weak" as [...if I wanted to]. Given *here*, the circumstances must be pretty "immediate", but you could certainly assume *if we went in this cafe* if spoken outside the cafe before having definitely agreed to enter. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2018-10-01T15:42:14.370 of course there's the greater "distance" implied by using *could, would* instead of *can, will*, reflecting deferential / hesitant politeness. Hence you might ask Would I be allowed to smoke?* instead of *Will I be allowed?* (itself already a "distanced irrealis" version of *Am I allowed?*). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2018-10-01T15:51:34.957

2@FumbleFingers or combinations with "may/might", e.g. "I wonder if I might possibly be allowed to smoke here?" – Andrew – 2018-10-01T16:26:29.830

Yeah - *I wonder if* and *possibly* are definitely part of any (non-self-respecting :) "deferential groveller's" linguistic armoury / toolkit. Whether it really increases one's chances of a favourable reaction is debatable, but I bet you'd be more likely to get a polite rather than dismissive refusal, which would be at least some comfort to the haplessly enforced non-smoker. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2018-10-01T16:59:08.280

1btw - strictly speaking I think it's either *If I roll down the window, can I smoke?* or *If I rolled down the window, could I smoke?* But I'm not an expert on grammar / pedantry, so I only think that - I don't claim to know it. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2018-10-01T17:02:24.487

8Could is also used in British English as a slightly softer-sounding alternative to can, when asking for permission to do something. I don't think anyone ever thinks about a conditional, implied or otherwise, in these cases. – Muzer – 2018-10-01T17:31:57.567

4(American here.) In response to "Can i ...?" questions, it's reasonably common to hear "I don't know, can you?" sorts of responses--when the asker is clearly asking for permission. So, "May i smoke?" feels more correct, at least in American English. – b w – 2018-10-01T17:48:43.290

2@Muzer I don't think that's limited to British English. It is quite common in the US as well. – Tashus – 2018-10-01T17:51:12.253

@Tashus fair enough, you're probably right. In fact it could well have originated from the US, come to think of it I can't figure out if it's the sort of thing I would have grown up with or the sort of thing I picked up later from American television. – Muzer – 2018-10-01T17:52:46.943


@bw That is a common distinction enforced by pedantic schoolteachers and parents, but there is an appropriate definition for "can" in these cases:

– Tashus – 2018-10-01T17:54:32.260

1@Tashus as in Q: "Do you know the way to London?" A: "Yes." – Weather Vane – 2018-10-01T18:01:35.963

@Muzer That sort of response was drilled into me when I was young, to emphasize that "can" and "may" really do have different meanings, and that using "may" in this case resolves a lot of ambiguity brought about by "can" being seen as an informal variant of "may". – Monty Harder – 2018-10-01T20:51:05.560

1How unfortunate that it wasn't drilled into some when they were young that sarcastically making fun out of people's usage of what someone thinks is the wrong word but probably isn't instead of actually Answering The Damn Question might not be the most polite thing to do. (I've been through that phase myself and I'm embarrassed to remember it.) – user1686 – 2018-10-02T04:40:56.767


Could I smoke here?

adds some unknown condition, for example you don't actually have any cigarettes, or a lighter, or it is raining hard, or you don't have time to smoke.

Weather Vane

Posted 2018-10-01T15:21:06.347

Reputation: 11 533

I think Gill is right here. As she explains, in the use #2, either can or could might be used, but could expresses a polite request whereas can is not quite as polite.

– Lucian Sava – 2018-10-01T18:24:39.513

@LucianSava at which time in that 18 minute YouTube does Gill come to the point? I am a native English speaker with a formal education. I might miss some points of grammar but I don't need lessons. Can you please post that as an answer? – Weather Vane – 2018-10-01T18:34:02.137

Sorry for my comment, I didn't mean to offend you. She merely presents a simplified explanation. – Lucian Sava – 2018-10-01T18:45:52.273

1@LucianSava a simplified explanation that’s 18 minutes long!? – Tim – 2018-10-01T21:46:22.083

Of the point in question @Tim, ie #2 which lasts perhaps 1-2 minutes, in case you didn't notice what are we talking about here. – Lucian Sava – 2018-10-02T07:30:07.773