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Should vs. Could: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Published on March 24, 2024
"Should" implies obligation or advisability, suggesting what is right or recommended, while "could" denotes possibility or ability in the past or hypothetical situations.

Key Differences

"Should" is used to express duty, advisability, or moral obligation, indicating what is considered correct or beneficial in a given situation. "Could," on the other hand, is used to indicate possibility or potential, often in hypothetical contexts or to refer to past abilities.
When using "should," one is often conveying a sense of recommendation, expectation, or normative standard. It suggests that there is a correct or desired action. In contrast, "could" is more about capability or theoretical scenarios, without the implication of recommendation or obligation.
"Should" often carries an implicit suggestion or advice, implying that the action is the preferable or right choice. Whereas, "could" merely indicates that something is or was possible, without any suggestion of desirability or preference.
The use of "should" can imply a subtle form of pressure or expectation, as it often relates to societal norms, rules, or personal obligations. "Could," however, is more neutral, merely outlining the scope of what is possible or imaginable, without any inherent judgment.
"Should" is typically future-oriented, focusing on what ought to be done going forward. In contrast, "could" is frequently used to discuss past abilities or actions that were possible but not necessarily taken.

Comparison Chart

Primary Usage

To express obligation, advisability
To indicate possibility, ability


Recommendation, expectation
Neutral potential, hypothetical

Temporal Focus

Future-oriented, what ought to be done
Often past-oriented, what was possible


Normative, implying a preferred action
Neutral, outlining the realm of what is possible

Contextual Emphasis

Obligation, societal norms
Capability, theoretical scenarios

Should and Could Definitions


Used to give advice or suggestions.
You should check your work for errors.


Used in making polite requests.
Could you please help me with this?


Expressing an expectation or recommendation.
You should try to exercise regularly.


Used to indicate possibility or ability.
I could go to the store later.


Used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness.
You should wear a helmet while biking.


Expressing past ability.
When I was younger, I could run a mile in six minutes.


Used in a conditional clause expressing what is supposed to happen.
If you study hard, you should pass the exam.


Suggesting a hypothetical situation.
If I saved enough, I could buy a new car.


Indicating a desirable or expected state.
The meeting should be over by 3 PM.


To offer suggestions or ideas.
You could try using a different method.


(auxiliary) Ought to; indicating opinion, advice, or instruction, about what is required or desirable.


Inflection of can


Used as a past subjunctive (contrary to fact).
I think he could do it if he really wanted to.
I wish I could fly!


Can "should" be used for giving advice?

Yes, "should" is commonly used to give advice or suggestions.

What does "should" primarily convey?

"Should" conveys obligation, advisability, or recommendation.

Is "could" used for past abilities?

Yes, "could" is often used to refer to abilities in the past.

Can "should" express a recommendation?

Yes, "should" is commonly used to express recommendations.

Can "could" be used for polite requests?

Yes, "could" is often used for making polite requests.

Does "could" imply certainty?

No, "could" implies possibility, not certainty.

Can "could" be used to offer suggestions?

Yes, "could" is commonly used to offer suggestions or ideas.

Does "could" express hypothetical scenarios?

Yes, "could" is used to suggest hypothetical or theoretical situations.

Is "should" used in conditional sentences?

Yes, "should" is used in conditional sentences to express expected outcomes.

Is "should" mandatory like "must"?

"Should" is less forceful than "must," suggesting advisability rather than obligation.

How does "could" differ from "can"?

"Could" is the past tense of "can," and is also used for hypotheticals, unlike "can."

Does "should" imply a moral obligation?

"Should" can imply a moral obligation or societal norm.

Does "could" indicate definitive past actions?

No, "could" indicates past abilities or possibilities, not definite actions.

Can "should" be used for expressing expectations?

Yes, "should" is used to express what is expected to happen.

Is "should" used in formal advice?

Yes, "should" is often used in formal and informal advice.

Is "could" used in indirect questions?

Yes, "could" is often used in indirect questions for politeness.

Is "should" similar to "ought to"?

Yes, "should" and "ought to" are often used interchangeably.

Can "could" be used to express future possibilities?

Yes, "could" can be used for future possibilities, especially in conditional sentences.

Is "could" neutral in terms of advice or obligation?

Yes, "could" is neutral, indicating possibility without advice or obligation.

Can "should" indicate a desirable state?

Yes, "should" can indicate what is desirable or expected.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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