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Sure, I'm sorry.

1. Tom could go to the store last night.

2. Tom could have gone to the store last night.

The objective is to tell someone that Tom had the ability to go to the store last night (he wasn't arrested, for example), but we do not want to tell anyone whether Tom did go or not (we want to keep it secret, for example).

Consider the following dialogue:

A: (insert sentence 1 or 2 above).

B: But did he go?

A: I don't know - ask him.

Does this dialogue make sense in either case?

Last edited by Former Member
@Former Member posted:

1. Tom could go to the store last night.

2. Tom could have gone to the store last night.

The objective is to tell someone that Tom had the ability to go to the store last night (he wasn't arrested, for example), but we do not want to tell anyone whether Tom did go or not (we want to keep it secret, for example).

Consider the following dialogue:

A: (insert sentence 1 or 2 above).

B: But did he go?

A: I don't know - ask him.

Does this dialogue make sense in either case?

I don't think it makes sense to say that Tom had the ability to go to the store — perhaps what you mean to say is that the had the possibility of going, or that he had permission to go.

To refer to a past possibility, you can say:

A: Tom may/could/might have gone to the store last night.

The speaker shows uncertainty. The interlocutor might ask:

B: How can we check whether he went or not?

Hmm, to me it does have sense to say that he had the ability to go.

Let's say, it was very important to buy something, but Tom was lazy and as an excuse, he now says that he COULDN'T go because, let's say, he was babysitting his six-month sister.

Because it was a lie, I would like to tell him something like, "Yes, you COULD have gone because your sister was at your aunt's."

Hmmm, I dont know. To me, it makes sense.

Last edited by Former Member
@Former Member posted:

Let's say, it was very important to buy something, but Tom was lazy and as an excuse, he now says that he COULDN'T go because, let's say, he was babysitting his six-month sister.

Because it was a lie, I would like to tell him something like, "Yes, you COULD have gone because your sister was at your aunt's."

Grammar books usually define "ability" as synonymous with "capability":

A: I couldn't pass the exam.
B: You could have passed it if you had studied more.

Anyway, your examples above are fine:

A: I couldn't go. (I found it impossible to go.)
B: You could have gone (it would have been possible for you to go) if you had wanted to.

A: I couldn't pass the exam.
B: You could have passed it if you had studied more.

In this example, we know that they didn't pass the exam.



Anyway, your examples above are fine:

A: I couldn't go. (I found it impossible to go.)
B: You could have gone (it would have been possible for you to go) if you had wanted to.

Yeah, but you treat them as having to do with possibility whereas I think of them as ability.

Actually, since we know that the action wasn't performed in this example, we can express past ability in this way. (The third use in the photo)

Screenshot_20201220-123519_Chrome

However, my concern is whether its possible when we don't know about performing the action, like in my first dialogue.

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Last edited by Former Member
@Former Member posted:

Actually, since we know that the action wasn't performed in this example, we can express past ability in this way. (The third use in the photo)

Screenshot_20201220-123519_Chrome

It is the verb phrase "go to the store" that didn't sound to me as depictive of an ability, but rather of an opportunity that wasn't seized. The semantics of modals is really complicated.

@Former Member posted:

However, my concern is whether its possible when we don't know about performing the action, like in my first dialogue.

Going back to the dialogues you proposed further above, A's statement in (1) does not make sense to me because of the use of "could." We cannot use was able to  because that would confirm performance of the action. I think we could use Tom had the opportunity/chance (was in a position) to go to the store last night for the rest of the dialogue to make sense. As regards (2), if "could" expresses "ability" (or "opportunity"), then the perfect infinitive indicates he didn't do it, and as a result the rest of the dialogue does not work. (David, please let me know if you agree with my reasoning.)

1.

A: Tom could go to the store last night.
B: But did he go?
A: I don't know - ask him.

2.

A: Tom could have gone to the store last night.
B: But did he go?
A: I don't know - ask him.

Last edited by Gustavo, Co-Moderator
@Former Member posted:

Is "could" used for expressing a past, temporal ability to do something (at a specific point in time) without implying whether that thing was done or not?

Could you provide an example to clarify what you mean by "a specific point in time"? Please read Guideline (6) at the top of the page.

Hi, Lucas and Gustavo,

What a pleasure it is to see a member directed to an item in our new Guidelines page for a point concerning Grammar Exchange policy.

Thank you for providing us with an example, Lucas. Rather than enter the debate you two are having about it, I'm going to create my own example:

(3) Yesterday, we could eat indoors at restaurants. Today, we can't.

I could have spoken that example on December 10, when the latest coronavirus lockdown went into effect in California. On December 9, California residents living in the region in which I live (Sacramento) were able to eat indoors at restaurants. That is, many restaurants permitted indoor dining. However, on December 10, Governor Gavin Newsom's latest lockdown decree went into effect, and restaurants were forbidden to permit indoor dining. Consequently, people lost the ability to eat indoors at restaurants on December 10, though they had the ability to do so on December 9.

Incidentally, it was not an accident that I fronted the adverbials "yesterday" and "today" in example (3); nor was it an accident that I italicized "could" in the first sentence of (3). I think that the emphasis on "could," together with the fronting of the specific past-time adverbial, helps to allow for the type of meaning desired. Also, please note that "could have eaten" does not work as a substitute, since you have said that you do not wish to convey whether the action was performed or not. "Could have eaten" would mean that, although we had the ability to eat indoors at restaurants yesterday, we didn't.

Hi, Lucas and Gustavo,

What a pleasure it is to see a member directed to an item in our new Guidelines page for a point concerning Grammar Exchange policy.

Hi, David. Yes, Gustavo directed me straight to point 6 concerning indispensability of examples.



I agree that this issue with past ability is very well suited for the current pandemic times

Thank you for providing us with an example, Lucas. Rather than enter the debate you two are having about it, I'm going to create my own example:

(3) Yesterday, we could eat indoors at restaurants. Today, we can't.

Actually, your example denotes the so-called general ability (like I could speak when I was 10) even though it was true yesterday and false today (thanks to the pandemic lol).

Also, please note that "could have eaten" does not work as a substitute, since you have said that you do not wish to convey whether the action was performed or not. "Could have eaten" would mean that, although we had the ability to eat indoors at restaurants yesterday, we didn't.

So the answer to my question is that "could" is not capable of denoting a past specific ability without implying whether the action was performed.

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