Do you believe OR Can you believe? (student question)

My student asked me “What’s the difference between the phrases Do you believe and Can you believe? She heard one of these phrases in an English movie, and that made her think of this question.

In today’s post I’ll answer that question. It’s a good one and I thought other people studying English might have the same question. 

The only difference is the first word of each sentence so I see how these are easy to confuse. DO vs. CAN

Let me explain the meaning of each with some clear examples.

Do you believe…?

  Is asking… “Do you think something is true?” OR “…can be true?

“Jim said he shot 2 holes in one playing golf last weekend! Do you believe him?”
This is hard to believe. I’m suspicious of his story. Do you think it’s true?

hole in one, suspicious, do you believe?


Can you believe…?

This expression is often used when we hear shocking or unexpected news. This is usually a rhetorical question.
A rhetorical question is a question that we don’t need or want an answer to. *I’ll explain that in more detail below…

We went to the bowling alley last night and George bowled a perfect game. Can you you believe it?
It’s rare that someone can bowl a perfect game. It’s very unexpected.

Here are some natural examples using 
Do you believe…?”

Do you believe in ghosts?”
(Do you think ghosts are real?)

Do you think believe in ghossts?

“The president says he is going to stop corruption in the government. Do you believe him? Politicians have a history of lying.”
(Do you think what he said is true? Is he being honest?)

Do you believe him?

 ⧬ 

Here are some natural examples using 
Can you believe…?”


①”Can you believe the boss said we can all leave early today! This is great!”

~ This is unexpected, but of course we are happy. Remember I said  at the beginning of this video that can you believe is usually a rhetorical question. Meaning we don’t need or want an answer.

I asked can you believe but I don’t expect an answer. it’s good news, it’s unexpected, but it’s a fact. It’s a surprising fact so it’s natural to say can you believe it, but I don’t expect an answer. I’m just excited because we can go home early! 

Can you believe the boss said we can all leave early today!


②”George and Christina are getting a divorce. Can you believe it? They always seemed so happy!”

~ The fact that George and Christina are getting a divorce is a surprise to me. I thought they were happy so this news is a shock.

Let’s turn this example into a short conversation and you can see how we naturally respond to rhetorical questions in conversation. 

Andy: George and Christina are getting a divorce. Can you believe it? They always seemed so happy!
Bruce: Wow! I just saw them last week at the coffee shop and they looked fine.
Andy: I know right! Everyone I have talked to is shocked to hear this.

~ In this conversation Bruce responds by saying “Wow!” then he mentions that he saw the couple last week. He never answers the question “can you believe it,” he never says yes or no. An answer is not expected. Andy is using “can you believe it” to show his shock and surprise at the fact that George and Christina are getting a divorce. 

They are getting a divorce. Can you believe it?



③”Mike won the lottery! $700,000! Can you believe it? Lucky guy!”

Mike won the lottery! Can you believe it?
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Rhetorical Question Examples from –http://examples.yourdictionary.com/rhetorical-question-examples.html

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