You could use ‘can’, or not!

This could be achieved using gravity to allow the water to flow from the higher to the lower level.

This is possible in some languages but not in English. In English if something happens the same way, all the time, predictably, without variation, then there isn’t really any question of probability (‘could‘). For regular, predictable phenomena use good old present simple tense without modals:

  • This is achieved using gravity to allow the water to flow from the higher to the lower level.

Only use modals for unpredictable or uncertain situations, and then think about the degree of predictability or certainty:

  • This could be achieved using gravity to allow the water to flow from the higher to the lower level, but there are other, better methods.
    (= Gravity perhaps not the best method)
  • In most situations this can be achieved using gravity to allow the water to flow from the higher to the lower level.
    (= Gravity usually the best method)
Indonesian flag Notice that could implies a more negative evaluation than can. Indonesians should think carefully about this distinction as they tend to over-use could, having been taught in school that could is more formal than can. Well, yes it is, but only in offers and requests:

  • Can you pass the salt? (informal)
  • Could you pass the salt, please? (formal)
  • Excuse me. Would you mind passing the salt? (very formal)
  • etc.

Two chill pills for writers

Students experience stress when they enter university because college life is tough and tiring.

In my opinion this writer needs to take a chill pill. The claim he or she is making about university seems highly subjective and emotional.

The first problem is that there are plenty of students – myself included – who do not experience stress when they enter university. Secondly, college life is not always tough and tiring. College life includes fun social activities with friends, holidays, and leisure activities on and off campus. Both of these ideas can be incorporated into the original statement after taking two chill pills:

  • Students often experience stress when they enter university because college life can be tough and tiring.
  1. (Pill 1) The adverb often tells us two things:
    • the frequency of stress (not always!)
    • the number of students who experience stress (not all!)
  2. (Pill 2) The modal can tells us about the possibility that college life is not always tough and tiring (It’s possible, but maybe not.)

Why is it a good idea to weaken claims like this?

  • it makes claims easier to defend
  • it makes your writing appear less subjective and more objective
  • it shows that you are confidently uncertain. 
  • it sends a message to your reader that you might be wrong, and you welcome feedback and corrections

When you’re reading journal articles, look for other strategies writers use to weaken (or strengthen) claims.

I would if I could, but I can’t

I enjoy using Facebook because I could see photos of my friends there.

Students are often confused about can/could, will/would. Sometimes they have learned at school that could and would are more formal, or more polite than can and will. That may be true when you are requesting something, but in IELTS speaking and writing you’re usually using can and will to communicate possibility or ability rather than to make a request.


How possible is it?

  • I enjoy using Facebook because I can see photos of my friends there.

In this case there is a strong possibility (almost 100%) that I will see my friend’s photos on Facebook. In this case I need to use can.

Let’s imagine a similar situation where there is no possibility:

  • If I had an Internet connection, I could see photos of my friends on Facebook.

Here the writer clearly does not have an Internet connection and so there is no possibility of him seeing his friend’s photos. Notice that in this example could is part of a structure called ‘second conditional’, which is used to describe an unreal or imaginary situation in the present:

If + subj + V2 + ‘,’ + subj + could/would + V1

In the ‘second conditional’ the situation you are describing is unlikely:

  • If I found a million dollars in the street I would buy a new house.

This kind of imaginary situation is by far the most common context for could and would.


Indonesian flag Indonesian students tend to overuse ‘will‘ because they want to translate ‘akan‘. But ‘will‘ is not used in English as much as ‘akan’ is used in Indonesian. Actually there are generally only three situations where will is suitable:

  1. ‘First conditional’ – a situation in the present that is highly possible:

Look at those clouds. I forgot my umbrella. If it rains I will get wet!

  1. Predictions

Look at those dark clouds! It will probably rain soon.

  1. Habits (usually annoying habits)

He drives me crazy. He‘ll (he will) trim his nails and then leave the cuttings all over the floor for me to clean up!


How able are you (or were you)?

It’s unusual to talk about past abilities, because once you acquire an ability, for example the ability to swim, you rarely lose that ability. It would be ridiculous, for example, to write:

  • When I was younger I could swim, but then I forgot how to swim so now I can’t.

We generally only lose this kind of ability when something terrible happens to us:

  • When I was younger I could swim, but then I lost my arms and legs in an accident and so now I can’t swim.

On the other hand ability can sometimes be a matter of degree. for example we can talk about partial ability, and about changes in our level of ability:

  • When I was younger I could swim 20km, but now that I’m old I can only swim 20 metres!

Most of the time when we talk about ability we use can – present tense – because, most of the time, we’re making a claim that is true now or always.

Summing up

Next time you write could or would stop and think. You probably should be writing can or will!

Were you able to bargain for IELTS?

Budi tried to teach himself IELTS but made no progress. Then he discovered @guruEAP and last Saturday he could achieve band 7.0.

Ok,ok.. I made this one up. It may look like shameless self-promotion, but it’s a problem I often see in student writing.

Consider this scenario:

When @guruEAP first arrived in Indonesia he could speak only English and French. Now, after 20 years in Indonesia, he can speak Indonesian fluently. Last weekend he bought some bananas from the local market and he was able to negotiate a reasonable price.

Here there are two kinds of ability:

  1. A permanent ability that existed/exists continuously over time (“..he could speak../..he can speak..“). Note that this can be past or present.
  2. A temporary ability in the past that existed momentarily, relating to a particular event (“..he was able to negotiate..“). Note that this is always past.

So if we return to the original problem:

  • Budi tried to teach himself IELTS but made no progress. Then he discovered @GuruEAP and last Saturday he was able to achieve band 7.0.

Note that the temporary ability was required in a situation that was difficult and required effort / struggle.