I was always taught (in England) to say "may we have ---" for a polite request. I will make a note that DUOLINGO wants to use "could"
Ah, I remember at school "Can I go to the toilet, Sir?" - teacher - "I don't know. Can you?"
But it's a bit old-fashioned / formal nowadays and British course books for foreign learners teach that "can" and "could" are the usual modals used for permission, but that "may" is a more polite or formal form.
"We use can and could to ask for and give permission ... May and might are also used to ask for permission. They are more formal than can/could. Some people consider them more "correct", but in fact can and could are normally preferred in informal educated use, especially in British English"
Practical English Usage - Michael Swan (OUP)
No reason not to allow "Can we have a spoon?" It may not be a direct <i>traduction</i>, but it is a very common casual usage in English.
I guess the same can be said for "Pouvons nous avoir une cuillère ?". So what's the point of replacing one construction by a slightly different one in the other language that isn't as good a fit as the most straightforward translation? Other than, in some cases, showing that you have trouble telling the different constructions apart in one language or the other?
I thought that "could we have a spoon?" sounded a bit unnatural, so I tried "might we have a spoon?". It was marked incorrect. How would one say "Might we have a spoon?"
To me, "might we" sounds a little strange. Perhaps British?
If it's just a dialectal thing, then there really is no difference between the two. (Hence cadilhac's reply.)
For the record, I'm speaking from a mid-west American dialect.
It sounds a bit strange to me too, and I'm British - this is another quote from my "bible" (which I've already quoted from elsewhere in this page about "may"), Michael Swan's Practical English Usage, aimed at learners and teachers of British English:
"Might is very polite and formal; it is not common, and is mostly used in indirect question structures - I wonder if I might have a little more cheese (Very formal; more natural than Might I have ... ? "
I believe it depends on your dialect of British-English. In RP "might I/ we have ..." sounds perfectly normal, and I hear it rather often.
This is a funny situation where I've learnt English as a first language, so I can't say with certainty what tense it is in, but I think the comment bellow is correct that it is past conditional, which is used in Spanish and French to be even more formal when posing a question. I guess that it entered English this way, but perhaps someone who knows better than I can clarify.
Hi. Well, I'm an RP speaker, and getting on a bit. I possibly use it on the rare occasions when I want to be ultra polite, but it sounds rather old-fashioned/formal to me. The sort of thing you might hear in a Bournemouth tearoom, perhaps.:)
As for the grammar, may, might, could and would are simply classed as modal verbs, which don't have tenses, but help form certain verb constructions. In modern grammar, English is not generally considered to have a conditional mood or conditional tenses (because we don't have separate forms of the verb itself, unlike in romance languages).
Generally speaking, the English equivalent of the stand-alone simple conditional form in Romance languages is would + verb (but this also has other functions) , while may, might, could, should are the equivalents of the simple conditional forms of Romance language modal verbs. But simple conditional, not past conditional. And it is the simple conditional that is used as a polite form in Romance languages - "Je voudrais" - "I would like", for example.
The confusion is perhaps because "would, could, should, might" are sometimes used as the past forms of "will, can, should, may", for example in reported speech, although they more commonly have other functions. So:
I would do it = Je le ferais
= Simple conditional of "faire" in its stand-alone form
I could/might do it = Je pourrais le faire
= Simple conditional of the modal "pouvoir"
I should do it = Je devrais le faire
= Simple conditional of the modal "devoir"
The past conditional of Romance languages - conditionel passé (Fr)/condicional compuesto (Sp) - has other functions, for example to talk of past hypothetical situations. In English, we'd use modal perfect here:
I would have done it = Je l'aurais fait
I could have done it = J'aurais pu le faire
I should have done it = J'aurai du le faire
The present tense of might is may. So "May we have a spoon?" is "pourrions-nous...?". Perhaps "Might we" is used with the past conditional?
Are you sure this has the correct connotations? The French wording is the normal one to use when asking someone to hand you a spoon, and the official translation takes care to preserve this meaning along with the less likely literal one. Yours sounds like it couldn't be used that way.
I don't think they would say that in the South. Do they? To me it sounds quite formal. Perhaps the old-money Southern upper classes say it. I could also picture the wealthy in New England and Manhattan saying it. It's not incorrect, so Duo shouldn't mark it as such, but it would be something I'd probably only say if wanting to be extremely polite in a fancy restaurant or as a dinner guest at someone's house. "Could we have..." can sound a bit brusque and demanding.
"Would we be able to have a spoon" should be totally acceptable. In disagreeing with the last comment, it has nothing to do with southern US usage, and is quite common in general usage all across the country. The use of "could" as an alternative is a bit harsher and not nearly as polite. Both should be allowed and certainly would should not be marked wrong.
Agreed. I wrote "would we be able to have a spoon" and was surprised it was marked wrong. To me, there is no difference between this statement and "could we have a spoon" (by the way, I'm not from the southern US). Besides, if pouvoir= "to be able to", then isn't pourrons= "we will be able to" and pourrions= "we would be able to" ?
In English, can is no longer a full verb - in many situations it must be replaced by be able to. In other languages this is not the case.
Pouvoir simply translates to can, whenever that can be used in English. It only has to be substituted by be able to for those verb forms that can has lost. French for be able to is être capable de.
It appears that the special situation in English with the defective verb can is eroding the distinction between can and be able to even where can is still a perfectly valid option. But until recently, in those situations where can is valid, be able to could only be used when you actually mean to say that someone has the ability to do something. This is still how English is taught to non-native speakers, and when I lived in the UK for a few years it didn't appear to me that native speakers there didn't follow these traditional rules.
I would agree that most people typically substitute "can" for "be able to" when they can (when they're able to!), which I guess is why non-native speakers are taught to do it, but I think it's mostly because it's easier to say. I have to confess that to me, the two are synonymous. To me, "he can speak french" and "he is able to speak french" are exactly the same.
I admit that this is only my opinion, although a quick scan of the web suggests I'm not totally alone (eg. wiktionary.org, which might not be the best reference, but then what authority is there on such matters?!)
If you want to emphasize that someone has the ability to do something, I think you would use "capable", for example, "he is capable of speaking french". But once again, all just my opinion.
Actually, Wiktionary under can says this: "For missing forms, substitute inflected forms of be able to". It lists three non-obsolete senses. Only the first is the more specific be able to. What we need in this sentence is the second sense: "May; to be permitted [or enabled] to."
Wiktionary under be able to says this: "Can, to have the ability to." IMO this refers primarily to the first sense of can. You are probably referring to the second usage note (with which I do not fully agree: it is not the case in every variant of English that be able to can be used whenever can is used - that's only true when transforming to a verb form where can can't be used).
Wiktionary is generally an excellent reference, but here they have the problem that editors have to rely primarily on their own linguistic instincts because other dictionaries don't list be able to as a single entity. (See discussion page.) This is because in standard English the phrase, contrary to what you say, can still be analysed in terms of its constituents. The most important is able, and its relevant senses according to Wiktionary are "having the necessary powers or the needed resources to accomplish a task" and "free from constraints preventing completion of task; permitted to; not prevented from".
Here "permitted to" is an addition in Wiktionary that I have not seen in other dictionaries yet. E.g. my Merriam-Webster only goes as far as including the sense of being free from social restrictions that prevent an action. Their example "women are able to vote in America" is acceptable to me as well because ability to vote can be seen to imply that the vote is actually counted.
I am able to open the window or to have a spoon if and only if it is physically possible for me to do these things. What may happen afterwards (someone may get irritated; someone may get very angry and undo my action) doesn't matter:
- I am able to have a spoon. (Because I am an adult human with fully functional hands and there is a spoon here that is freely accessible.)
- I can have a spoon. (Because I am able to have it, nobody minds if i do, and nothing bad will happen if I do.)
- I am able to have a spoon, but I can't have it because it would be impolite for me as a host to take the only spoon after inviting my employer to have soup at my place.
- I can have a spoon (like everyone else), but I am not able to while I am blowing my nose.
Using capable instead of able is a work-around sometimes necessary where be able to can be used as a full substitute for can. In standard English this is only the case where the forms of can are missing; but of course now that capable is often used in this way it has a natural tendency to be used in the other verb forms as well. This is part of the mechanism working towards the loss of the remaining forms of can.
Because this is really what it is about: English is in the process of losing the verb can. And your variant of English has progressed further on this path than standard English.
I think that the English way of politely asking for something is something that the translators do not have a grasp of. In my book, 'could we', 'might we', 'would we be able to' have the same meaning.
This is not the translators' problem. These formulations are constantly changing because people keep coming up with new ways of making explicit that they are just asking whether it is possible to do something, and then using them in ultra-polite requests which gradually morph into ordinary polite requests. This happens at different speed in different regions. What in one region is unambiguously a question asking for information and would sound odd as a polite request to do something, may already be a perfectly unremarkable polite request in another region.
My experience from 3 years in England has been that "be able to" is pretty much reserved for the ability to do something, except when it must be used as a replacement because a verb form of can is missing. This is also how I learned it at school in Germany and how it works in all the classical English literature. Using be able unnecessarily for even greater politeness must be a recent innovation that is still a regionalism.
As an English English speaker I think that 'could we have a spoon, if necessary' and 'would we be able to have a spoon, if necessary' are completely interchangeable for all practical purposes.
Yes, but note that your addition "if necessary" sets up a special context that restricts the possible interpretations of can to the subset that can also be expressed by be able to. The issue that a lot of people seem to be having here is that in those situations where a suitable verb form of can still exists, be able to is restricted in a way that makes it unsuitable for the translation of this French sentence, at least in standard English and I think also in all forms colloquial British English.
this is the first fault I have found. So in the grand scheme of things, its not that bad
I have never seen this particular sentence, but I would guess that it came up as a proposed 'correct' answer after you entered something wrong (probably just with a typo or a forgotten word).
Duolingo adds certain variants of English sentences automatically based on transformations such as replacing is by 's or have by 've. Sometimes - as in this case - this is inappropriate. I don't know if the course creators are even able to fix this, but even if they are, it's no doubt a tedious process that takes a long time to complete.
When Duolingo doesn't accept an answer, it searches its database of acceptable answer for the one that it considers most similar to what you entered. Obviously this is based on superficialities - basically it's about the number of letters that must be added, removed or swapped to get from one sentence to the other. As a result, sometimes really poor or even wrong accepted answers come up in the process.
The slow pronunciation does not say "nous". There is a hint of "nous" in the normal speed pronunciation.
is 'will we be able to...' an appropriate translation? (It was marked incorrect)
Wrong tense and mood. In English the simple future tense and the present conditional are completely indistinguishable. [Oops: This is nonsense. See discussion. It's actually the future past and the present conditional that are indistinguishable in English, but this is not so relevant here.] In French they are just very similar, but can practically always be distinguished at least in writing. Your sentence would be "Pourrons-nous avoir ...", without the i in the verb.
Thank you - I am still trying to get to grips with conditional usage. I wish Duolingo offered a bit more in terms of grammatical background/explanation.
Perhaps one of these might help:
I don't quite follow you. English doesn't have a Present Conditional tense. What we do have are structures with "would" and "could", which are certainly different from Future Simple ("will")
"Will you hand me that tool?" - familiar
"Would you hand me that tool?" - more polite
"Could you hand me that tool" - even more polite
To me those are distinguishable, in both form and function.
I don't quite follow you, either.
- will we be able to have = pourrons-nous avoir
- would we be able to have = pourrions-nous avoir
Duomnky asked why the English in the first item is correct. I explained that it isn't because it only corresponds to the French in the second.
I agree with your main point about Duomniky's answer not being a valid translation, and also with a lot of what you say earlier about "be able". And as the cause of my doubt appears to have been a simple "slip of the pen, I'll amend this a little. But I'll leave in the main drift, just in case it might be useful to someone.
Linguists and grammarians don't usually recognise either a conditional tense or a conditional mood in English, but we do have a functional equivalent to the conditional mood of Romance languages, and for verbs other than the modals "pouvoir" (where it is "could") and "devoir" (where it is "should") that equivalent is "would":
"Je voudrai tellement être en vacances"
- I would so like to be on holiday
"Il a dit qu'il téléphonerait de l'aêroport"
- He said he would phone from the airport
And there is often a very similar relationship (and difference) between the use of "will" and "would" in English to that between Futur Simple and the Conditionnel Présent in French. This is perhaps clearest when comparing "real" and "unreal" conditional constructions:
"S'il fait beau, on ira à pied"
- "If the weather's fine we'll go on foot"
"Si j'avais de l'argent sur moi, je t'en prêterais."
- If I had any money on me I would lend you some
As you say, this is not the only use of "would", which can also be used as the past of "will", in reported speech for example (as is Conditionnel Présent in French) - "He said he would call back later", or as "future in the past" - "She would later go on to become prime minister". But "would" also has other functions, including to talk of past habit - "She would always cook us an amazing lunch", and of present behaviour thought "typical" - "Well, you would say that, wouldn't you?". All in all a rather versatile little word, our "would". A bit more here (ignore the exercises):
As I am in a hurry, here is just a response to your first two paragraphs for now: You are absolutely right, and I just edited my post to explain what was wrong.
OK, I'm with you now. It's true that "would" has several uses, one of which is equivalent to conditional use in Romance languages, and another is as the past of "will", for example in reported speech.
Arg what is the difference between knife and spoon. I never remember and italian makes it even worse.
In French the gender of knife = masculine, le couteau. The gender of spoon = feminine, la cuillère..
In Italian though, the gender of both knife (e.g. il coltello) and spoon (e.g. il cucchiaio) = masculine.
and then in spanish it's el cuchillo for knife and la cuchara for spoon. which also seems rather backwards from french, but the genders are the same so that might help me remember. Thanks : )
'Could we have a spoon?' in English could equally well be indicative, e.g. 'When we were children, we could have a spoon of honey after lunch.' 'Could we?'
I translated this sentence as 'might we have a spoon', (i.e. would we be able to) which seems to me more accurately to capture the conditional sense, but it was not accepted.
Coul we have.....can we have.. what is the difference. Both answers should apply. In respect to politeness, it' not always what you say, but "How"you say it
Is a possible answer "Should we have a spoon?" It's just as natural in English and seems to be an acceptable use of the conditional here but it's not an accepted answer. And is there a way to distinguish in French between "could", "would", and "should" outside of context?
I really don't see where your confusion comes from:
- We can do = Nous pouvons faire
- We could do = Nous pourrions faire [or in past tense use: pouvions]
- We will do = Nous allons faire / Nous ferons
- We would do = Nous ferions
- We shall [= ought to] do = Nous devons faire
- We should do = Nous devrions faire
The differences between could, would and should aren't particularly subtle, and they work much the same way in French as they do in English.
In particular, the French question asks whether it is possible that we have a spoon. Your proposed translation asks instead whether there is a case to be made for our having a spoon. It's entirely possible that we should have a spoon (so we can eat our soup) but can't (because there is none left), or that we could have a spoon (as there are plenty in the drawer) but are not allowed to (because we would likely attack our neighbour with it).
- we can = nous pouvons
- we could [conditional] = nous pourrions
- we could [past tense] = nous pouvions
Isn't this most likely asking if we each can have a spoon? Duo rejected my use of "spoons", but unless we're all going to share one spoon, in English we generally either use the plural or "each".
It's true that in this general area things are not necessarily straightforward, but at least in this case French works the same way as English. This is actually someone asking for a single spoon. Maybe a group of people are cooking. Or they are laying the table and only one spoon is missing.
I think CraigSkeel's point was that in certain situations, English uses the plural when some other European languages use the singular. I am not sure if this applies to French, but it does apply to my native German - which is what CragSkeel may have had in mind. Example:
- They looked at their watches. = Sie schauten auf ihre Uhr.
In the natural context, in which everyone involved has precisely one watch and consults it, English plural watches becomes German singular Uhr. The two languages only agree about grammatical number in some unusual contexts:
- One shared watch for everyone: They looked at their watch. = Sie schauten auf ihre Uhr.
- Everyone consults several watches: They looked at their watches. = Sie schauten auf ihre Uhren.
Context is everything. But it is not given here. "Could we have a spoon" implies that the availability of the spoon is in doubt. "May we have a spoon"assumes that the spoon is available and that one is asking the server politely to bring one. So both are correct, but have different meanings. My parents felt that confusion on these terms reflected a confused mind and/or the lack of education. I have taught my children the same.
Is "Pourrions-nous ..." polite enough on its own or is it also often used with "s'il vous plaît"?
From this discussion I only have access to the slow voice. The little explosion of 'p' is clearly audible to me. In addition, the vowel quality is clearly that of French 'ou', not that of French 'au'.