How do you say could in French?

On this page, we look at how to say could in French. Before going through this section, it will help if you are familiar with the section on how to say can in French.

The English word could has various functions:

  • a possibility, often based on a condition: I could help you if I had more time;
  • a tentative suggestion: I suppose I could help you;
  • a tentative supposition: they could be planning more attacks;
  • a polite request: could you help me? could we have some more wine?;
  • various meanings covered by "can" in the past, typically "used to be able to...": in those days I could handle more stress;
  • "can" as a "present-in-the-past" or "future-in-the-past", generally in indirect speech: she said she could swim; they said I could park here; David knew he could finish it on time.
  • occasionally, could is also used to mean managed to...: could you finish it in the end?. (However, it turns out that this particular usage is on the decline, and speakers would tend to say e.g. did you manage to do it in the end?)

In French, these various functions are generally covered by either the conditional or the impefect form of the verb pouvoir. (As mentioned in the section on how to say "can", ccasionally savoir is used1.)

As a rule of thumb:

  • The imperfect tense of pouvoir covers the meanings of "used to be able to", "used to be allowed to" and "was able to", "was allowed to".
  • The conditional tense of pouvoir covers most other uses, where "would be able to" or "would be allowed to" are often possible alternatives in English.
  • When making a more tentative suggestion, where in English you could say “It may/could be that...”, the formula Il se peut que... or Il se pourrait que... closely matches the English sense of could.

If you're not familiar with these tenses, it is recommended that you take a look at the relevant sections to see how they work in general:


1. For an overview of the usage of modals in English, see Chapters 12 & 14 of Aarts & McMahon (eds), <i>The Handbook of English Linguistics</i>.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.