Thursday, March 25, 2010

What's up with "Could"?

I suppose the title of this post doesn't convey my question very well.

What I'm wondering about is why I see so many narratives where we are told that some "could see" or "could hear" something. For example:

She could see the ducks in the pond.


He could hear the rumble of trucks on the nearby freeway.

Why "could"? (Which is one of those words that starts looking odd after you've written it too many times...)

In the case of the first example, the author might have instead written

She saw the ducks in the pond.

Or even, if we are clearly embedded in her POV,

The ducks paddled across the pond. (etc)

Why the "could see" construction? When I read it too many times, I find myself asking, "She could see? But what? She could, but chose not to? She could see, but instead put her hands over her eyes?"

Now, there are completely legitimate uses of this construction, especially when it follows a change in conditions:

Standing on the box, he could see over the fence


Once he turned off the car's engine, he could hear the chirping of the crickets in the field.

But the longer I think about it, the less I like

He could hear the chirping of the crickets in the field.

all on its own. Obviously the writer is telling us that he heard them, not that he could have but overlooked them, or the writer would have said something like

Were he not so distracted by his mobile phone, he could have heard the chirping of the crickets in the field.

So why are some writers so tempted to avoid saying

He heard the chirping of the crickets in the field. ?

It has an air of the hypothetical case about it. Are people drawn to the "could" construction because it's a little weasely? My dictionary notes that could is sometimes used as "an alternative to can suggesting less force or certainty or as a polite form in the present ". In other words, yes, weasely (which in my opinion usually weakens fiction).

Or perhaps it simply has a fine, slightly archaic ring to it (as it were)? I was at a graduation ceremony not too long ago where I heard the slightly formal hypothetical used in an unending stream. As each graduate was announced, we heard something like

John Richard Smith...John would like to thank his parents, and Mrs. Jones at the school library.

Uh-huh. He would like to, but he can't? He'd like to, but is having us do it instead? I, well, could think of reasons he would like to but won't, and after I hear a speaker repeat 'would like to thank' a dozen times, I not only could think of reasons, but I actually do think of reasons. He'd like to, but at the moment he's too stoned to talk. He'd like to, but unfortunately they never helped him, and in fact were the major impediment to his success. He'd like to, but he was captured by Moorish pirates and had his tongue cut out.

(Hey, it helps pass the time. If there's any thing more boring than a graduation ceremony, I never want to attend it.)

I note that could and would are both similar, very old words. And when I think about it, should is pretty fuzzy, too. It must be those -ould words--shifty and circumlocutive.

Of course, I exclude from this category -ould words like mould, which is a very different matter. But perhaps that's why on this side of the Atlantic we spell it mold. I could believe that. I would like to believe that.

I should be ending this post now.


Tim Stretton said...

Ah, david, another of my weakness on which you alight!

A quick scan of my work suggests I am very fond of this usage - although I suppose "fine, slightly archaic ring" is the voice of the Mondia novels. It works well for intrigue, evasion and indirection (although I seem to use it more indiscriminately than that...). Jack Vance, of course, puts it rather better:

"Supple sentences, with first and second meanings and overtones beyond, outrageous challenges with cleverly planned slip-points, rebuttals of elegant brevity; deceptions and guiles, patient explanations of the obvious, fleeting allusions to the unthinkable."

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Well, I find it in my own writing sometimes, too. And when I notice it there, I have to stop and ask myself what the heck I mean by it.

And you're right--Mondia tends to be high on manners, and the "would-could-should" triangle are a form of politesse. I, well, could see how that locution would easily slip in.

"...patient explanations of the obvious..." Ah, Vance. If nothing else, his sheer playfulness is always bracing.

Alis said...

I wonder if this is one of those subtle differences in usage between British English and American English? I don't hear 'weaselly' in the construction at all - nor even a nod at the conditional - just a slight distancing of the central character from their environment.

For instance, where my American friends would say 'I hear you', I would say 'I can hear you', where they would say, if asked to describe a scene, 'I see x, y and z' I would always say 'I can see x, y and z'. Since 'could' in this context functions as the past tense of 'can', I'd certainly use that if asked to describe what I had seen.

Tim Stretton said...

I'm sure there is a subtle difference in transatlantic emphasis - although I think there is a whiff of circumlocution in the 'could' construction. But that may just be the kind of Sir Humphrey role I occupy in real life...

Matt Curran said...

Aargh. Echoing Tim - yes, your Honour, I am guilty. Or at least I could be.

"Could" lends itself an air of mystery or it "might" be just bad writing. "Would" is intention so I can live with that - but never again will I glance over the use of "could" and will pour scorn and such forth over another weird use of English in writing which I'm very guilty of myself.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

You make an interesting point. But "I can see what you mean" strikes me as an acknowledgement of a capability, and I have no trouble with that for the same reasons I don't mind "When he climbed to the peak of the roof he could see the river."

Strictly BTW,--and perhaps I'm overanalyzing--I still think "I can see what you mean" has a hint that the speaker might in fact disagree with you. (Very much like "I'm sorry you feel that way," which is a Weasel Supreme.)

In any case, I have no objections to how characters speak--they ought to sound like people--but I wonder about "could" in narrative. Although it isn't really the passive case, it has the same vibe, if you know what I mean:

He could see the car.

has the same flavor as

The car was driving down the street.

It seems to me that

He saw the car.


The car drove down the street.

are both more active as narrative.

"Could see" is very common in narrative writing over here. Heck, I sometimes write it myself without thinking. I'm just puzzling over why, as it doesn't seem to make much sense.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

I guess that would mean that when an American uses "could see" we are engaging in a higher degree of circumlocuosity (circumlocutioness? circumlocuation? Ack.).

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

"Mystery" might be the right word; I suppose "could" is one of those words we use to smear a little oil on the lens of our sentences.

And it might have its uses. Like adverbs in dialogue tags, I think it ought to be assumed guilty until proven innocent, and questioned whenver it pops up on the page.

And, for the record, when I'm writing rapidly (well, rapidly for me), adverbs sometimes creep into my dialogue tags, and I have to go through later and interrogate them. "Could" more often escapes me, because it's more invisible.

Frances Garrood said...

Perhaps I'm alone in this, but I think 'could' is fine in the contexts you give as examples, David. I see it as meaning 'in the circumstances/position (or whatever) in which he found himself', he was enabled (ie he could) see etc. etc. It has quite a different feel to it from, for example, 'he saw'.

But it's an interesting point.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

Yes, I agree completely that the use of "could see" as "was enabled" is appropriate. "Through the binoculars, he could see the cracks in the wall of the castle."

Possibly even in contexts where "see" is being used in an abstract way, such as "He could see the strain in her face."

But I see it used all the time when when there isn't any question about ability. And it is those cases--which seem to me to constitute the majority--that make me wonder.

As in "She could see the ducks."

Why could she? Because she was looking at them, I suppose. It seems to me to go without saying. Yet it still seems to get said a lot.

"With her glasses on, she could see the ducks." makes perfect sense to me. But if she doesn't need glasses, and we have not been told she has any problems with her vision, and she is standing right next to the pond, there's no logical reason to ever assume that she couldn't have seen the ducks. If the ducks are there, she sees them. Being told that she can see them seems to introduce a whole additional set of considerations...

Frances Garrood said...

I take your point, David. But I think another aspect is that the subject 'could' see ducks (or whatever), in that it was possible to see ducks, although s/he may not necessarily have chosen to do so. If he 'saw' the ducks, he was making a deliberate choice to look at them.

I have made another (similar?)point about strange grammar on my own blog, and would be interested to know your views (although it may not be in use in the US).

Haarlson Phillipps said...

Good post, David. As ever, you've given us something to be thinking about.
However, whether could, should or would is the correct word choice does not bother me as much as the use of 'of' immediately following! Could of ... should of ... would of ...Aargh!

David Isaak said...

Heya, Haarlson--

Yes, "could of" gives me the shakes.

I assume the derivation is from "could have," which is usually, at least here in America, "could've," and that to many ears that sounds like "could of."

I don't have many problems with seeing "could of" in dialogue, since that indeed is what many people are saying. But I still avoid it myself even if I am writing a character who would say "could of," just because I don't want to a) raise questions in the reader's mind about whether the writer knows right from wrong, or b) help perpetuate this monstrous misuse.

So when I write dialogue where a character would say "could of," I either write "could've," or if that's a little too up-market for the character, I use "coulda" ("I coulda been a contender." --On the Waterfront by Budd Schulberg.)

The only case I see that "could of" ever has a place in narrative would be in the letters, diary, or speech of someone quite uneducated, in which case it would probably be invisible amongst all the other mistakes. (cf. Daniel Keyes' masterpiece Flowers for Algernon).

I'm guessing there are more "could ofs" in manuscripts out there than we would ever suspect, but that copyeditors make them disappera before they reach final print!