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I'd like to know when it's appropriate to use "können" and when "könnten", are they completely interchangeable? Is it like the difference between "can" and "could" in English?

Können Sie mir bitte sagen wie spät es ist?

Könnten Sie mir sagen wie viel Uhr es ist, bitte?

I found plenty of examples on Google but they didn't seem reliable to me.

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up vote 21 down vote accepted

Yes, it's pretty much the same difference as "can" and "could" in English.

In this specific case both words do effectively the same thing, in that they turn a direct request into a more polite question.

"Könnten" is the subjunctive (in German: "Konjunktiv") of "können". One of the usages of Konjunktiv is expressing courtesy.

In another context, they choice between the two words would change the meaning, however:

  • "Wir können jetzt gehen."
  • "Wir könnten jetzt gehen."

The first one indicates that we are ready to go now. The second one indicates that we could go now, but there's something that's stopping us (even if it's just the decision to actually go).

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Yes, the other answer is correct; können means can and könnten means could.

What is important though is that in your given example könnten should be used when you would like to be more polite. By putting your verb into the subjunctive for a question it becomes a bit more courteous: Könnten Sie mir bitte sagen...

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