"could not [verb]" might strictly imply that attempts were made

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This question was influenced by this one. I think there is a situation when 'could not [verb]' implies that some attempts were made.

I could not find him.

I could not come up with a context that would be free of the implication that the subject actually tried to find him.

Can you comment on this? Approve or disprove it.

Graduate

Posted 2014-03-25T12:42:13.483

Reputation: 7 310

Do you mean a context for that specific sentence (I could not find him), or for any sentence using this type of structure? – Alicja Z – 2014-03-31T23:52:33.027

@AlicjaZ: Let's try just for that specific sentence. – Graduate – 2014-04-03T09:46:12.463

1@Graduate I think the implication of the attempt (or wish to attempt) is not from "could" but from "find". Changing the verb and the sense of making an attempt could be much more relaxed. Even embedding it in other construction could shift the sense a whole lot, for example, I knew I couldn't find him. I wasn't allowed so. – Damkerng T. – 2014-04-03T10:03:35.323

@DamkerngT. I wonder if, in your example, it's a case of the second sentence influencing the first (a sort of grammatical revisionist history or whatever): by default, we understand "I couldn't find him" as meaning "I tried to find him and failed", but added context can change that meaning to "I wasn't allowed to try to find him". – Alicja Z – 2014-04-03T13:57:20.220

...and, working off of that, perhaps this type of "I couldn't [verb]" structure doesn't imply that attempts were made, so much as that there was an interest in making such attempts (but whether the attempts were made, or couldn't be for some reason, is another matter)? – Alicja Z – 2014-04-03T13:58:53.390

@AlicjaZ I believe so. The basic sense of "couldn't" is "wasn't/weren't be able to", so it makes sense to say that we attempted or wished to attempt those "thing we weren't able to do so". However, as my garden path sentence suggests, the attempt could be made irrelevant. In any case, Graduate's sentence is very interesting. "I could not find him." on its own seems to be strong enough to suggest the desire to attempt. In my opinion, it's mostly from the "find" part. – Damkerng T. – 2014-04-03T14:13:50.943

Answers

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The usage of "could" implies but does not require an actual attempt to be made.

I could not find him (because I never looked).

I could not climb the ladder (because I am missing all four of my limbs).

I could not dance to the music (because I am deaf).

If you "could not" do something, it simply means that something caused you to fail in the task. Not trying is (almost) guaranteed to make you fail your task.

(I say 'almost' because it is very possible to not go looking for something but end up stumbling over it anyway! Sometimes even literally.)

Alexander

Posted 2014-03-25T12:42:13.483

Reputation: 1 286

2

It depends on context.

I could not find him.

probably means there was an attempt. However

I could not look for him.

does not. Here the speaker was probably unable to look for him, busy doing someing else or such.

user3169

Posted 2014-03-25T12:42:13.483

Reputation: 29 679

0

The confusion might be something to do with the verb.

"Could" is the imperfect tense. Synonymous with "I was not able to", this does imply an attempt was made. If one says, "I was not able to do this", you give the impression (not strictly, but an impression nonetheless) that you have evidence to back up your point, as a 'failed attempt'.

"Could" is the conditional tense. "I could do something" could also mean 'I would be able to', but as this is only condition it doesn't imply any attempts were made.

The same word used for two different tenses makes the meaning ambiguous.

MMJZ

Posted 2014-03-25T12:42:13.483

Reputation: 1 807