In those days, you could have been (could be?) killed for any trifle



Let's take a hypothetical sentence pronounced by a hypothetical person who speaks, say, of events that are more than 100 years in the past:

"The civil war period was very violent. In those days, you could have been killed for any trifle."

Would this sentence be grammatical and logical if both the speaker and the listener were born after the civil war in question, meaning there was not a chance for any of them to witness those days?

I've looked up Google, and "those days you could have been" turned out to be a rare combination for some reason.

But "In those days you could be killed" is possibly wrong when talking of the past.

I'm trying to proofread an English-language post written by a Russian-speaking person and untangle the grammar behind some of the structures. His sentence runs like this:

There was very dangerous at that times because you would be looted, taken a beating and even gone home in a box...

I'd come up with this "could have been" instead of his "you would be looted, beaten.." but then had second thoughts. Maybe "could be" is proper. Or should one use "you were likely to be looted"?

Here's one sentence I've found at Google Books:

As I stated before, in those days, you could be an Instructor as a Private Pilot, but there was not much of a practical use for having one because you couldn't charge for your services.

It seems that could be works fine as the past form of can. But will it work in:

As I stated before, in those days, you could be killed easily.


Posted 2014-11-02T14:59:24.953

Reputation: 36 949

This is a great question which covers the hypothetical (but not counterfactual) use of 'could have' – Kinzle B – 2018-04-22T05:17:40.447

Which country's "civil war period" is being discussed? – Jasper – 2014-11-02T15:00:50.897

@Jasper: It's just a hypothetical sentence; I've added some context. – CowperKettle – 2014-11-02T15:10:22.637



Compare the following sentences:

Present time

  1. It's very dangerous in Metropolis right now. You can be beaten up for just looking at someone the wrong way.
  2. It's very dangerous in Metropolis right now. You could be beaten up for just looking at someone the wrong way.

Sentence (1) presents being beaten up as a live possibility, as something that does actually happen to people. Notice that we can analyse for just looking at someone the wrong way, as some kind of condition:

1'. You can be beaten up if you just look at someone the wrong way.

Sentence (2) presents being beaten up as a hypothetical outcome of the wrong look. It is not being presented in the same way as in (1). It doesn't necessarily say that people are being beaten up for looking at people the wrong way - although we might assume that they are.

Could in sentence (2), as already mentioned, represents this outcome as a hypothetical possibility, as opposed to a live one. We could rephrase it as the following hypothetical conditional:

2'. You could be beaten up if you just look(ed) at someone the wrong way.

Remember both of these sentences refer to the present or future time. The way that we interpret you here is quite likely to affect our interpretation of the sentence. It's also quite likely to affect our choice of can or could. If you means a person in general, we are more likely to use can. If you is being used to make the listener imagine themselves in that situation, then we are more likely to use the hypothetical could.

Past time

Let's move forward twenty years. Now if we wish to make the same kind of statement but about Metropolis twenty years ago instead of now, we need to shift the tenses back to indicate past time. Example (1) would now be as in (3):

  1. It was very dangerous in Metropolis in those days. You could be beaten up for just looking at someone the wrong way.

Here we see could appearing as the past form of can. This past form of can still implies that people actually were being beaten up for looking at people the wrong way. It is being presented as a live possibility for people at the time. It has exactly the same meaning as can, but refers to a past time. It does not represent hypotheticality.

However, in sentence (2) we already have past tense could, where the past tense indicates hypotheticality. If we wish to keep this hypothetical flavour, but also indicate past time, then we need to shift the tense back further. We need to use a past perfect form as in (4):

  1. It was very dangerous in Metropolis in those days. You could have been beaten up for just looking at someone the wrong way.

Sentences (3) and (4) could be construed as the conditionals:

3'. You could be beaten up if you just looked at someone the wrong way.

4'. You could have been beaten up if you ('d) just looked at someone the wrong way.

So if we see a past perfect form could have this most likely represents past time reference plus hypotheticality.

Hope this helps!

Araucaria - Not here any more.

Posted 2014-11-02T14:59:24.953

Reputation: 25 536


Excellent! But I invite you to consider whether there isn't a third dimension here -- present-referent could employed with such attenuated 'hypotheticality' that it is virtually identical with some senses of can. (Our wondrously persistent user Kinzle B offers some examples here.) It is my impression that in such cases the past-tensed form remains could, while the 'perfect' could have VERBen is mostly reserved for 'strong' hypotheticals - mostly counterfactuals.

– StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-11-02T23:28:48.700

3Thank you, Araucaria! So "in those days, you could have been" works even if the person spoken to wasn't present in those days. So Leo's answer is a bit off the mark. What is the difference between (3) and (4)? Is it that (4) implies that people were very aware of this danger and it was very unlikely for anyone to be careless enough to look at someone the wrong way? – CowperKettle – 2014-11-03T05:06:23.047

1@CopperKettle No, I don't think so. You might have noticed that I didn't use temrs like 'modal remoteness' or probability and counterfactuality in my post. I use the term hypotheticality. 'Hypothetical' here means considered as a theoretical situation. Notice that if a situation is impossible, you have to consider it theoretically. But just because you consider something theoretically, it does not mean that the situation doesn't, wont, or hasn't existed. For example, If we offered* you the job, what changes would you make to X?* doesn't mean that they won't give you the job! ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-11-03T10:01:15.920

1@CopperKettle ... so in the 'look at them the wrong way' example, it might just be that the situation is being presented in a hpothetical/theoretical way. On the other hand, if the author wants to use you to make the reader imagine themselves looking at someone the wrong way back then, then this of course is impossible... But that reading is not the only reading for the sentence. Is that any good as an explanation? – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-11-03T10:07:13.970

Is it possible that "I could swim" is likely to mean "I can swim"? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-11-03T10:21:58.527

@Araucaria: I'm trying to make it sink in, will do some quirking (reading Quirk et al.). What if we used not you but one: "Back then, one could be beaten up for behaving too perky". I guess we cannot use could have been in this instance? Since the sentence does not invite you to don the skin of one in the way it does when you is employed. – CowperKettle – 2014-11-03T10:51:57.437

2@CopperKettle I don't think that 'one' excludes that reading (one is a very odd pronoun). But even if it is generic you that's used, the idea could still be presented as a theoretical situation. It is always true of could have been that the situation is considered theoretically as opposed to factually - even if we are considering something that did actually happen. – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-11-03T10:57:11.027

@StoneyB Well, I do agree there's often as not no tangible difference in matter of fact, or probability etc between the two, if that's what you mean by attenuated hypotheticality. But I don't agree that the could've version is any different in that respect. However, that isn't what I mean by hypotheticality. (Notice that in the Kinzle examples, could excludes a present simple always reading of the type lions can be found here, it's more of a futurish could if we wanted-type could imo) I wrote my Master's dissertation on 'conditional backshift' a couple of years ago ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-11-03T12:33:46.377

@StoneyB ... by which I mean my take on it may be somewhat non-standard ;) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-11-03T12:34:51.207

@Araucaria 1) I think you use 'hypothetical' in (much) the same sense as Declerck & Reed use 'theoretical'? 2) Does the presence of a hypothetical modal in a main clause entail an inferrable condition clause? 3) Is your thesis on line? 4) Is there a 'standard' account of conditionals? :) – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-11-03T13:29:55.723

@StoneyB 1) Well, it's difficult to tell, because D&R never really define what they mean by theoretical - as I remember. - unless they're part of that group who define it in terms of negative epistemic stance/speaker's view of probability. (im)probability. 2) No, I don't think so. 3) see comment below in a sec 4) No! I haven't finished my PhD thesis yet! ;) (some people might argue Kratzer has the standard account in linguistics). EDIT there is a consensus on backshifting indicating improbability/negative epistemic stance/counter-factuality etc – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-11-03T13:41:26.360

2@KinzleB Sometimes "I could swim" = "I can swim" with respect to 'modality'; both may express the same confidence in your present ability to swim. But in these cases, can will be used to express your general present competence and implicates your having swum before, while could will usually be used with respect to a specific situation which has not yet arisen or is still 'open' to your swimming. In other cases, of course, could may express past reference or social tentativeness or some uncertain condition. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-11-03T14:02:32.640

@Araucaria I would like to read it - I've just signed up on I've been wrestling for six months with an approach to verbs in conditionals that might get ELLs beyond the Nth conditional nonsense, and 'non-standard' is attractive! ... – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-11-03T14:15:26.490

@Araucaria Yes, D&R are much stronger on examples than on clear exposition. But: "a factual P-clause refers to a situation that has actualized or is actualizing in the real world, while a theoretical P-clause just makes a theoretical assumption about a situation, that is, a supposition about a situation in a theoretical (nonfactual) world. (Dudman [1991] speaks of a ‘fantasy’.) In factual-P conditionals the speaker commits herself to the truth of P in the real world, whereas in theoretical P-conditionals she does not". I presume one may generalize from P-clauses to complete constructions. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-11-03T14:17:36.180

@StoneyB Dudman's one of my heroes. I think he get's a mention in there somewhere. But whether P is actual doesn't figure too much in my theory. The diss that you've got there is just about backshift in conditionals. My current theory stems from some those ideas but is totally unrelated to any theories around at the moment - as far as I know. If you feel like giving me any feedback on the MA thingie -negative or positive or tangentially related, they'd be gratefully received :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-11-03T16:37:48.617

1Does either of the following express a more urgent warning? Be careful, the sidewalks are icy here. One can slip and fall. or Be careful, the sidewalks are icy here. One could slip and fall. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2014-11-03T22:40:08.413

@TRomano The second sounds more like a warning. I'm not sure why, but I think because it's could it's got more of a specific future possibility reading as opposed to a generally happens feeling ... (shrugs) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-11-03T23:39:59.700

1@Araucaria Yes, indeed. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-11-05T15:32:35.237

Come to think of it. I've never read about anything like your concept of 'attenuated hypotheticality', esp related to 'could'. Why don't my advanced grammar books even drop a hint of it? Any books you could recommend? Can you plz give me a few more examples on this particular usage of 'could'? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-12-14T15:45:30.407

1@KinzleB Imagine this conversation: KB:"Do you happen to know when Kafka was born?" SB:"No, but I could look it up for you." KB:"That's OK, just wondering..." Here the hypotheticality of my could is very thin: I certainly can look it up, and could signifies only that I'm making the offer. If you backshifted that it would still be could: "I told Kinzle B I could look it up, but he said not to bother." – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-12-14T15:57:17.957

So do you agree with FumbleFingers' suggestion that the first could is different from the rest three in my previous question. I tend to think these 4 examples share the same usage of 'could'. I got confused. @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-12-14T16:07:54.153

@KinzleB W e l l . . . It's a difference of 'flavour', because it's a different context: as FF says, it amounts to a 'hedge': we 'could' do this; [if we did that,] however, [we would also have to observe that]... – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-12-14T16:44:22.497

Got it; Backshifting all these 4 examples we had to stick with 'could' rather than 'could've', right? @StoneyB – Kinzle B – 2014-12-14T16:54:29.797

@KinzleB Right. MODAL-Past + have + PaPpl will usually be a past counterfactual. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2014-12-14T18:39:15.430


There are two situations here:   A. Hypothetical     B. Reality

In hypothetical situations, you do not exist or you did not exist. Like in your example, the person to whom you are speaking to was not there in the civil war times - So your sentence

"In those days you could be killed" is actually correct.

'Could have been' is only used in 'Real situations.' For example:

  1. He got away from burning car before it exploded.

Here we can say: He was lucky to have gotten away from that burning car in time. He could have been killed. (Here 'could be' can't be used)

Another example : Suppose I say

  1. I could be a pilot in world war two.

This means that 'i was not there in world war two, because it's a hypothetical situation. But

  1. I could have been a pilot in world war two.

means that i was there in world war two, (maybe as a soldier) but i did not get a chance to become a pilot.

Note - the use of 'could have been' here makes it a real situation and it's no longer a hypothetical situation. So to sum it up:

  1. If you are making a hypothetical statement then use 'could be'
  2. If you are making a reality statement then use 'could have been.'


Posted 2014-11-02T14:59:24.953

Reputation: 3 111

1Thank you, Leo! I get it: "could have been" refers to a real but unrealized possibility. "Could be killed" refers either to the past or to the present/future possibility", moreover, could be used to refer to unreal possibility ("If you lived then you could be killed") and that makes it hard sometimes. – CowperKettle – 2014-11-02T17:18:39.780

@Araucaria: Oh. You could rewrite your answer then, that would be great! A chance for me to untangle this part of the conditionals tangle. – CowperKettle – 2014-11-02T17:34:11.953

1@leo, Copper Kettle, That's a very different usage of could have been. That represents backshifting of could for a hypothetical possibility. The problem with could be in that situation is that counterfactual/hypothetical could indicates future not past time. This is quite different to CopperKettle's example! Sorry Cooperkettle, Leo : that last comment was posted before it was finished and edited! :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-11-02T17:36:31.967

1I disagree with your answer. "Had I been alive during WWII, I could have been a pilot" is a perfectly correct sentence dealing with a hypothetical situation. – Doc – 2014-11-03T06:05:41.727

1@Doc I wont disagree with the answer, as I have very little knowledge regarding this matter. But one thing is for sure, like you I also find the sentence (the one your wrote in your comment) quite acceptable and believe this way the sentence correctly expresses a hypothetical situation. Anyone please correct me with proper explanation if I am wrong. Thanking you. – Man_From_India – 2014-11-03T07:49:01.570

Doc - you need to post your answer in response to the original question. You need to elaborate your point further if you want us to understand it clearly. You need to make us understand why do you think your answer a perfectly correct sentence. Just dropping in one-liners vis-a-vis disagreement with me won't help. So if you want to make your point 'Please post an answer.' Unless and until you do that your disagreement won't count and is worthless for me. – Leo – 2014-11-03T11:58:36.100

@Leo the one example I provided (and a plethora of others I can also provide) do not an answer make. That said, I do believe the example I provided quite succinctly disproves your point - and Araucaria's answer is complete to express the same. Others may choose (as I did) to downvote your answer because of it (which I think is more than 'worthless') and hopefully upvote Araucaria's answer unless you choose to correct your own. False information is dangerous. – Doc – 2014-11-03T13:34:24.987

Doc- No prblm. Let's take his example and convert it to your way. His sentence is - It was very dangerous in Metropolis in those days. You could be beaten up for just looking at someone the wrong way. According to you this sentence would be - 'Had i been alive in Metropolis in those days, I could have been beaten up just for looking at someone the wrong way.' - This is the sentence you'd come up with right ? - It doesn't make any sense to me all. You might want to take other's opinions on this. And i am not a false-information provider and no one is here stupid enough to buy if it was false. – Leo – 2014-11-03T13:47:31.667


CORRECT: Back then, you (or one) could be killed for any trifle.

There was very dangerous at that times because you would be looted, taken a beating and even gone home in a box...

It was very dangerous in those times; you could be robbed, beaten, or even sent home in a box.

"could have been killed" would mean that, at some point in the past, a situation arose where the danger was great enough to result in death, but death did not occur.

Why did you jaywalk across the busy street at rush hour? You could have been killed!

Twenty years ago, there was no pedestrian crossing or traffic signal at this busy location. You could be killed trying to cross the street.


Posted 2014-11-02T14:59:24.953

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