Why can't could be used in this sentence?


✲ I left early and could get a seat. (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language)

CGEL says “could does not normally appear in affirmative contexts when it is a matter of actualisaiton of a single situation viewed perfectively*.” But as I’m not an English user, not finding any semantic strangeness from the example. Can you explain why could can’t be used in the example?


Posted 2013-11-10T14:34:20.127

Reputation: 25 811



Could is no longer used as the simple past of can in contexts like these, because the tentative or counterfactual use of could is now the “default” reading and using it in a factual sense would confuse the reader.

This is another reason why non-modal verb phrases like be able to and be going to and be willing to are replacing full modals; these don't have the ‘dual’ use of their past forms, so it is less ambiguous to say

I left early and was able to get a seat.

Note that this sentence is entirely acceptable:

I left early so I could get a seat.

There the could is non-factual—it is equivalent to would be able to or might be able to.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2013-11-10T14:34:20.127

Reputation: 176 469