The nuance of "could have done"

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I think I could have failed this time as well.

Could the above phrase mean two things?

First it means that I could have failed without your help or something. So with help I could have been successful.

Second it means that I have a feeling that I failed. So there's still a chance of success and I'll have to wait a bit more.

Am I right?

user2492

Posted 2013-10-19T12:33:29.657

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Answers

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Yes. As it stands, without context, the sentence is ambiguous. Which meaning it has depends on what time references are involved.

The ambiguity arises because of the dual use of the modal verbs can, may, will, shall.

All verbs may be used in past form with non-past reference, to express uncertainty. Ordinary verbs are only used this way in the if clause of conditional constructions:

If I had a computer I could send him an email.

Modal verbs, however, may also be used this way in ordinary declarative clauses. The consequence clause of the sentence above can stand on its own:

I could send him an email, but I won’t. ...

This is more or less equivalent to I can send him an email—it is merely a little more uncertain: It is possible, right now, for me to send him an email.

BUT!—what if you want to express a past possibility? Ordinarily, we ‘backshift’ a present-form verb into the past form to accomplish this:

I can send him an email today, and I will → I could send him an email yesterday, and I did.

But if your present expression employs a past form, you don’t have this option: you’ve already ‘used up’ your past form. The workaround is to use have + past participle as a ‘past marker’:

I could send him an email, but I won’t → I could have sent him an email yesterday, but I didn’t.

Consequently, there are two possible interpretations of could have failed. It may be a modal present perfect, representing a more uncertain version of can have failed

I could have failed, if I missed that last question. = It is possible, right now, that I have failed.

Or it may be a backshifted version of could fail:

I could fail, if you don’t help me. → I could have failed, if you hadn't helped me. = It was possible, then, that I would fail.


Note that can in this context has to be more or less equivalent to be possible rather than be able

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2013-10-19T12:33:29.657

Reputation: 176 469

As you explain, your last example (I could have failed, if you hadn't helped me.) could not be regarded as a subjunctive mood, right? ( "could" that I use here also means "be possible") @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-03-19T04:32:36.257

@ZhanlongZheng ehh ... I get nervous when anybody uses the term subjunctive, because aside from be no English verb has any subjunctive forms, and I can never know what your teacher has used subjunctive to mean. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-03-19T12:31:17.197

OK. We learnt grammar in Chinese at school. Before using this forum, I didn't know this "subjunctive" word. Anyway, "I could have failed, if you hadn't helped me." does not refer to a unreal condition as in "I would have failed, if you hadn't helped me." Am I right? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-03-19T12:41:58.433

@ZhanlongZheng Right. Could designates a possible outcome, not a certain outcome. Since you are speaking about the past, you probably know now whether you failed or not, so it's real or unreal now; but at the time it was merely possible. You might have succeeded even if he hadn't helped you. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-03-19T12:48:16.247

I still feel a little confused. Let me put it this way. Still take your last two examples for instance, 1."I could have failed, if I missed that last question." means that it was likely that I missed it, but I am not sure whether I missed it or not. 2."I could have failed, if you hadn't helped me." means that you did help me, it is only a hypothetical for me to say "if you hadn't helped me." Is my explanation right? – Kinzle B – 2014-03-19T13:04:24.083

@ZhanlongZheng 1. If I missed that last question it is possible, right now, that I did fail. 2. If you hadn't helped me it was possible, then, that I would fail at some later time. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-03-19T13:23:09.967

OK. Let's say, 1. I am not sure whether I missed that last question, so I will have to wait until all the quizzes are handed out. 2. I don't know whether you helped me without me being told. if you did, please tell me. Do these two situation agree with your last two examples respectively? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-03-19T13:44:49.520

Now I think I have figured it out. I could have failed, if you hadn't helped me.= I would possibly have failed if you hadn't helped me.(past, unreal) Yes or no? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-04-13T04:05:07.680

@ZhanlongZheng: Gold star. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-04-13T04:35:54.653

BTW, is this correct in some cases(e.g. in a story narrated in the past tense): He might fail if his teacher hadn't helped him secretly.(past, real) @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-04-13T05:00:23.200

or this: He might succeed if his teacher had helped him secretly.(past, real) – Kinzle B – 2014-04-13T05:15:35.477

@ZhanlongZheng Those will be acceptable only if the double past can be read as a condition whose factuality is unknown (hence not an irrealis) AND the condition is not the only contributor to the outcome (hence might rather than would). "He did not know whether his teacher was competent. Had he really helped him in the secret lessons over the past year? The test tomorrow would reveal the answer. If his teacher had not helped him, he might fail. If his teacher had helped him, he might succeed. But in either case his own performance was critical, not his teacher's." – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-04-13T11:21:31.640

Very interesting. That's also what I was thinking about; it is not the only contributor but an unknown condition. But would the test tomorrow reveal the answer? I would think no matter what the result tomorrow would be there is no way we can tell whether his teacher had helped him or not. What do you think? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-04-13T13:11:23.233

@ZhanlongZheng Of course you're right: the test would not reveal the answer. But he might find out from another source! – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-04-13T13:12:30.863

Since it is so, why would you say "The test tomorrow would reveal the answer." in your previous comment? Or, Were you referring to some other thing? I wondered. @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-04-13T13:15:53.260

@ZhanlongZheng Because I was writing hastily without thinking. I put it in originally to emphasize that the factuality of the condition was at that point unknown - and then forgot to delete it when I realized that you were using might rather than would and added the rest. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-04-13T13:20:16.377

Thx for your patience! I don't know whether I present myself as a over-precise type. – Kinzle B – 2014-04-13T13:27:58.590

@ZhanlongZheng One cannot be too punctilious in such matters! – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-04-13T14:07:01.707

You say in your last example,"I could fail, if you don’t help me. → I could have failed, if you hadn't helped me." But I think it should be "I could fail, if you didn’t help me. → I could have failed, if you hadn't helped me." What do you think? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-04-25T14:31:17.917

I don't know whether I get it right, but you told me,"present could is backshifted to could have been only when it represents an irrealis." Therefore, I believe it should be "I could fail, if you didn’t help me." in your last illustration. @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-04-26T12:59:33.057

@ZhanlongZheng In that case I am illustrating, first, a present open conditional, where it is not known whether you will help or not, and a retrospective case where it is known, after that fact, that you did help me, because in that passage I am explaining what could have failed might mean. But you are right: if the backshift were inteneded to represent my appeal at that past time it would be expressed I told you then that I could fail if you didn't help me. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-04-26T13:18:54.807

I see, but how is "I could fail, if you don’t help me." possible? I never saw such a weird utterance. I don't understand its meaning. Can you plz contrive a context for that? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-04-26T13:52:50.183

@ZhanlongZheng "Could you explain to me what a derivative is? I have a Calculus exam tomorrow, and I could fail if you don't help me." – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-04-26T14:02:26.943

I see. I misunderstood sth in your previous interpretation. Much appreciation! – Kinzle B – 2014-04-26T14:15:08.130

For "I could send him an email, but I won’t." on its own, is this "could" an irrealis here? If not, then "could" would mean "may", which does not make sense here. @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-05-01T14:17:13.573

@ZhanlongZheng Could would be paraphrased might there, not may. But in fact could would be preferred; it implies "Nothing makes it impossible for me to send an email", as opposed to might, which would imply "I am contemplating sending an email". – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-05-01T14:29:11.887

I got it. Could doesn't mean 'would be able to' here. We use it as a 'softer', less definite form of can, as in 'What shall we do tomorrow?- Well, we could go fishing.' And I do think a few seconds after the speaker utters 'I could send him an email', he makes up his mind. (he says he won't!) Is this what I'd expect it to mean? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-05-01T15:04:23.713

@ZhanlongZheng That's one situation. Or A says "You could send him an email", and B responds "Yeah, I could send him an email, but I won't; he only checks his email about once a week. I'll phone him." – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-05-01T15:18:29.390

Nice. A little more context always makes it clear. My thinking capacity has improved a lot. BTW, any interest in my 'Could have' = 'would possibly have' question? Would you agree with my opinion in my question? – Kinzle B – 2014-05-01T15:30:32.360

@ZhanlongZheng I'm laying off of conditionals for a while, to catch up with my reading and develop a systematic treatment. In another two or three months I may have a Canonical Post. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-05-01T15:41:20.660

OK! I hope I can contribute a variety of more questions on this. I have an enormous interest. I'll go through a few well-written books on linguistics as well. Thx again! – Kinzle B – 2014-05-01T15:55:28.520