George: Man, I'm starving!

Elaine:   How can you be hungry after what you ate at that Mets game?

George: Because ballpark food doesn't count as real food.


——part of a conversation from Seinfeld

My question is, when Elaine says "How can you be hungry...", is it also correct to say "How could you be hungry...", using "could" instead of "can" to express "It's unbelievable"?

"Could" is used to ask about past situations, right? 

1.How could you do something like that? (That already happened.)

2. How could you have done something like that? ( the same as 1)

Both are used to express "unbelievable", right? Can they also be used to ask "in what way you did that?

3.How can you do something like that?

This is only used to ask "in what way you mamage to do that, show me again...", right?

These two words are always confusing me.😝

Thanks for your help and sorry for the pain.😂

Original Post

Hi, Ruifeng,

"can" and "could" can express ability or possibility, depending on the context.

In the question you quote, "can" indicates possibility:

- How can you be hungry after what you ate at that Mets game? (How is it possible that you are hungry...?)

"could" would be used in the past:

- How could you be so rude?

As you can see, there is no sense of ability involved in these questions.

Yes, (3) is incorrect. If you want to ask someone how they manage to do something, you don't say "how can you do that", but "how do you do that?"

The "can" in Elaine's question is asking about the current situation - how can he currently be hungry - how is it possible that he's still hungry, right now? Whereas "could" used in that sentence would make it more hypothetical, and that wouldn't be set in a certain time - just hypothetical, of any time period. She could say "how could you possibly still be hungry?" and that would mean around the same thing. But "can" makes it more immediate.

Asking "how could" in a past sense is different again - how could you do that?! As in, that was a terrible thing.

Add Reply

Link copied to your clipboard.