The use of can and could

Hi, I want to know if it is possible to use 'could' to talk about present/future ability. I was reading a book called Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True Amerian Monster and I came across this line "I don't think anybody could say as to that particular man just what the influence of that accident or that concussion was", and as far as I know, could (when we are talking about ability) is only used for past ability. 

 

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Hello, Linda, and welcome to the Grammar Exchange! 

Could you please provide some more context? "Could" can indeed express possibility or ability in the present or future, but the sentence you quoted, with that final "was," could very well refer to the past. Only some more context will help us decide.

Hello, Gustavo, thank you and I am very excited to have joined the Grammar Exchange.

The preceding text of the sentence I quoted says: "If he was filthy and dirty in his habits; and if all this followed after concussion of the brain, and a sufficient concussion at ten and eleven years of age to render him unconscious for four or five days with the frequent reoccurrence of tremendous headaches, what would you say? And also with a very decided nomadic tendency and extremely melancholic episodes, sometimes punctuated with what you might call exalted moods and sickly piety?"

Mathers took a moment to absorb this lengthy question before responding. "I don't think anybody could say as to that particular man just what the influence of that accident or that concussion was," he said... 

 

 

Yes, Linda, that "could" expresses present possibility or ability, and is more tentative, less categorical than "can":

- I don't think anybody could (= would be in a position to) say as to that particular man just what the influence of that accident or that concussion was.

- I don't think anybody can (= is in a position to) say as to that particular man just what the influence of that accident or that concussion was.

Mathers is unsure about the actual consequences of the accident on the person's current behavior, and expresses that uncertainty by means of "could."

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