What does this perfect tense intend to say?



Quirrell's voice trailed away. Harry was remembering his trip to Diagon Alley - how could he have been so stupid? He'd seen Quirrell there that very day, shaken hands with him in the Leaky Cauldron. (Harry Potter)

What does the perfect tense intend to say?


Posted 2013-02-11T12:53:55.663

Reputation: 25 811

Since the sentence uses could, I think you can just use be, have been, or had been. – kiamlaluno – 2013-02-11T13:06:38.213

1@kiamlaluno, No no no! Please consult some grammar books! Neither "could he be" or "could he had been" make sense; the former has a present meaning, and the latter is utterly ungrammatical. Only "could have been" makes sense and is grammatical. – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-11T13:16:34.450

Since when is "Could I be right?" wrong? – kiamlaluno – 2013-02-11T13:31:15.743

@kiamlaluno, that is a good question, but "Could I be right?" is definitely a present tense situation. It means "Am I right, or am I wrong?," NOW. "Could I have been right?" means "Was I right, or was I wrong?," a past meaning. – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-11T13:39:16.053

You said that "could he be" doesn't make sense. I guess that, for you, the question form of "they could be right" doesn't make sense. In your first comment, you were not speaking of differences between using be, and have been. Then, what I wanted to point out is that "Could he were be so stupid?" is not something said, and referring to the past event with could requires another type of past tense. – kiamlaluno – 2013-02-11T13:45:57.853

@kiamlaluno, "They could be right" is a present assessment, and of course it makes sense and is grammatical. You didn't actually give the question form, which would be "Could they be right?," but I agree with you that it is okay but always refers to a present assessment/evaluation. What other constructions do you think might work with "could" in this particular context to show a past meaning? I am certainly willing to consider them. – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-11T14:28:50.673

@ShawnMooney Quoting what you said: "Neither 'could he be' or 'could he had been make sense." "Could [personal pronoun] be" does make sense, contrary to what you said, period. – kiamlaluno – 2013-02-11T14:37:00.940

Not period. Far from it. As I hope I have clearly explained before, a question using the form "Could [personal pronoun] be" only makes sense in a present evaluative/assessment context. If I have misunderstood your point (misunderstandings on my part are highly likely), please let me know. – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-11T14:51:37.300

2@Shawn, kiamlaluno: Whilst it's true that *how could he had been so stupid?* is never valid, in such contexts it's perfectly common to say *how could he be so stupid?*. Perhaps it's partly because "stupidity" is often seen as an "enduring state", so if he was stupid in the past, he's still stupid now. Whatever - it's nitpicking to dispute the usage on logical/semantic grounds, since native speakers come out with it all the time. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-02-11T23:03:04.203

@FumbleFingers, thank you for the feedback. I have also reconsidered kiamlaluno's feedback, which makes good sense. Just now, I have made a substantial re-edit to my original answer, based on your comments and also those of jwpat7; I would be grateful if any of you could review it and suggest any improvements. Thanks! – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-12T14:17:52.827



The meaning is that Harry is recalling a past action or behavior, and, while remembering it NOW, in the present of the narrative, he is judging it as stupid. The use of the Present Perfect here is necessary with the question word how together with the past modal construction beginning with the modal verb could. There is a definite tone of self-criticism in the question.

Could + a present tense verb can show possibility, and could have + a past participle usually shows a past possibility that did not occur. However, in WH-questions with how, the meaning can be quite different, as it is in your example, where the question often means that the action following could have did occur, and the questioner is asking why. Often, the question is rhetorical and judgmental. (I can think of only one exception where a WH-question with how and could have is not judgmental: How could I have done that?, in answer to, for example, a policeman accusing someone of a crime when that questioner has a solid alibi. In such a context, the questioner is asking (either sincerely or disingenously) for proof or a logical explanation of how they could have possibly committed the crime, but not conceding that they had done so; neither, obviously, are they judging themselves for a crime they have not admitted to having committed. There may be other such exceptions...)

In positive sentences using could have, there is not necessarily as strong a tone of criticism (For example, You could have helped sounds judgmental, but He could have been busy does not sound judgmental; the latter sentence is simply speculating about a past possibility), and in negative yes/no questions (Couldn't you have helped?) or WH-questions with how (either with first, second or third person pronouns), there often is a judgmental nuance (for example, How could I have been so stupid?, How could you have done that?, How could she have been so stupid?). However, the exception I provided above could be rephrased as either a negative yes/no question or a WH-question with how that is not judgmental: Couldn't he have been busy? or How could he have committed the crime, since he has a solid alibi?

(In the present tense in a WH-question with how, could + [be], a similar tone of judgmentalism can be shown, but with a present, ongoing meaning: How could I/he/she/they be so stupid? Often, the difference between How could he be so stupid? and How could he have been so stupid? is negligible.)

I hope this helps. Please let us know if you have any other questions.

Shawn Mooney

Posted 2013-02-11T12:53:55.663

Reputation: 1 808

Nothing else could be better! And I want to know one from your answer. Would you let me get an example for negative yes/no questions? – Listenever – 2013-02-11T13:27:20.920

@Listenever, thank you. Actually, because the first word of your response, "nothing," is negative, it should be followed by a positive verb: "Nothing else could be better!". – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-11T13:29:42.083

@Listenever, as for your question about negative yes/no questions, here are some examples: "Couldn't you have cleaned the kitchen?," "Couldn't he have called first?," and "Couldn't she have let me know first?" All three show a critical, judgmental tone, a sense of an expectation being unfulfilled. Let me know if you have any other questions. – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-11T13:34:45.400

@kiamlaluno, please don't edit out my friendliness. I will re-insert it everytime, as I plan to do now. – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-11T13:41:20.187

1@ShawnMooney Please avoid adding "What a good question." Just answer the question; comments about how good the question is are irrelevant. – kiamlaluno – 2013-02-11T13:47:54.557

@ShawnMooney, I’m very lucky to get YOUR answer today. For I’ve been always in a big trouble grasping the meanings of the perfect tenses. Thank you very much. And I’ve read your comment on Jane Eyre’s semi-colon and colon question of mine. Thank you for it too. – Listenever – 2013-02-11T13:51:09.613

@kiamlaluno, as I have said on ELL before, and about which I have recently posted a suggestion on meta-ELL, I absolutely refuse to refrain from being friendly here. – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-11T14:05:13.550

And keeping to say "What a good question!" is a way to be friendly? There is a reason why thanks, hi, and other phrases that don't answer the question are removed from posts: Stack Exchange sites are not forums. – kiamlaluno – 2013-02-11T14:15:55.147

@kiamlaluno, I could care less what StackExchange says. Edit me all you want, I will continue to be friendly here. You do your thing, and I shall do my thing... And what, pray tell, is the REASON????? – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-11T14:20:46.360

1Right, your friendliness is limited to your answers; on your comments, friendliness is optional, and you can say to somebody else to go read a grammar book when you pretend that "could he be" is not grammatical. If you don't know that Stack Exchange sites are not forums, it's your fault, not mine. – kiamlaluno – 2013-02-11T14:30:26.613

@kiamlaluno, I certainly apologize if my feedback seemed rude. Really. To be honest, I do apply a different standard of politeness when answering an ESL/EFL learner's question compared to responding to an answer thereto. In the latter case, I tend to be more direct because I prioritize accurate answers above all else on forums such as these. However, I certainly did not intend to be rude, and if I was, I apologize. I shall review our back-and-forth, and do some soul-searching, and I really hope we can augment each other's answers in the future, and collaborate, not butt heads. – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-11T14:40:32.380

You say “could have + a past participle shows a past possibility that did not occur”. In the present example, “how could he have been so stupid” refers to something that did occur: he had been stupid (apparently). – James Waldby - jwpat7 – 2013-02-11T14:52:42.260

1@jwpat7, please consider how the WH-word "how" cements the meaning of the question. Is there any doubt whatsover that the stupidity happened previously in this context? – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-11T15:04:42.873

Shawn, there is no doubt that the stupidity happened previously, if it happened. I added “(apparently)” because I don't know if Harry actually had been stupid. The real point of my previous comment is that the present example refers to something that did occur, while your answer says the construction refers to something that did not occur. – James Waldby - jwpat7 – 2013-02-11T15:22:08.117

@jwpat7, I undertand your question/objection more fully now. I stand by, and perhaps expand upon, my previous answer: in a WH-question using the adverb "how", the action referred to in the Present Perfect afer "could" definitely happened, and the question is asking about the reason for it. "How + could + [subject] + have + past participle" questions always ask about the reason(s) for an action that DID happen. – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-11T15:41:55.557

1Shawn, your answer says “could have + a past participle shows a past possibility that did NOT occur” (emph. added) which is the opposite of what your comment says. – James Waldby - jwpat7 – 2013-02-11T16:39:21.203

@jwpat7, I have reviewed the comments you made, my answers thereto, and my original post; 24 hours later, I completely agree with you that there was some unhelpful confusion in my answer to OP compared to the comments I made to you after that. I hope I can rectify the problem in the edit I am about to make to my answer to OP. Please check it, and let me know if you agree. Let's work together to clarify this. The attitude I displayed last night is sequestered in the other room, and I am hereby imposing a moratorium on providing answers or commenting after midnight Tokyo time. :) – Shawn Mooney – 2013-02-12T13:19:31.863