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Consider:

He might go to Beijing last month.

He might have gone to Beijing last month.

He could have gone to Beijing last month.

Any difference in meaning?

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I am way past needing to go to bed, but this question made me smile. It sounds like a great, epic poem. What might have been, what could have been. Let's discuss it in Beijing. –  Jolenealaska Mar 16 at 20:34

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

1.

He might go to Beijing.

Expresses a possible future action. Therefore the use of last month is impossible. You must use a time expression that goes with the future, for example:

He might go to Beijing next month.

2.

He might have gone to Beijing last month.

He could have gone to Beijing last month.

Both express a possible situation in the past.

→ He might have gone to Beijing last month.

According to context could mean:

  • There's a possibility he went to Beijing last month, I'm not sure perhaps he did something else.

  • I know he went some place last month, I don't exactly remember where, it could be Beijing. (sentence stress on "to Beijing" when spoken)

  • I know he went to Beijing sometime or other, it could be last month but I'm not sure. (sentence stress on "last month" when spoken)

→ He could have gone to Beijing last month.

There was a possibility for him to go to Beijing last month but he didn't go.

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OELD offer an example: Don't worry—they could have just forgotten to call. I think here "could have" means the same thing with "may/might have", what do you think? And it has nothing to do with ability. –  Kinzle B Mar 16 at 15:48
    
@ZhanlongZheng: Can/could can express ability (I can speak English / I could climb Mount Everest) but it has lots of other uses. In "they could have just forgotten to call" it expresses a possibility, not ability, you're right –  Laure Mar 16 at 16:11
    
At least for me intuitively, the major difference between "he might have gone" and "he could have gone" is that the first example emphasises that I think that something likely happened but I'm not sure about it all, but in the second example I simply acknowledge that the possibility existed. In particular, if I was asked "Is there any possibility that he had ever visited China?", and I thought that he most likely didn't, but there was a theoretical possibility - then the "could have" option would be appropriate. For me, "Might have gone" would be okay with 30% chance, but not with 1% chance. –  Peteris Mar 16 at 21:21
    
Colloquially, there's really very little difference between “he could've gone” and “he might've gone”. I could/might use either in exactly the same situation. –  Emmet Mar 16 at 23:18
  • He might go to Beijing last month.

    This employs might as the past form of may. The expression last month (or week or year or Thursday) can only have present reference, so this sentence would normally occur only in reported speech (“indirect discourse”) where you are paraphrasing a statement ‘he’ made last month about his intentions then:

    He said "I may go to Beijing" last month. =
    He said last month he might go to Beijing.

  • He might have gone to Beijing last month.
    He could have gone to Beijing last month.

    Both of these employ the “pseudo-perfect” construction used to express the past tense of modal verbs when the ordinary past form signifies unreality rather than past tense. This construction is employed both in reported speech and in hypothetical statements about events which did not in fact occur.

    He says that he might have gone to Beijing last month, but he wasn’t sure; he is going to check his appointment book.
    He could have gone to Beijing last month, but a colleague got sick and he had to stay at his desk to cover the extra work.

The difference between can/could and may/might in present-day English is the difference between ability and possibility.

I can go to Beijing any time I want to, and I may go next week. Or I may not; it depends on whether my wife can get time off from her job.


As recently as fifty years ago may/might was also contrasted with can/could in formal usage as denoting permission rather than ability. But this distinction has been steadily declining for two hundred years, and today can/could is used freely to express permission.

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Thx a lot. I think Laure's explanation is more exhaustive, what do you think? He says that he might have gone to Beijing last month, but he wasn’t sure. Why do you use "says" here? I would think it should be "said". –  Kinzle B Mar 16 at 15:37
    
@ZhanlongZheng Either will work. One problem with English modals is that they have very few forms and constructions to express very many possible situations, so each form or construction has to cover many possibilities. Your examples take us into territory where there are more distinctions to be drawn than the language has tools for; consequently, much of what is meant must be inferred from context rather than from the actual words. ... Many fat books have been written about these matters; you shouldn't expect a comprehensive account here! :) –  StoneyB Mar 16 at 15:44
    
OELD offer an example: Don't worry—they could have just forgotten to call. I think here "could have" means the same thing with "may/might have", what do you think? And it has nothing to do with ability. –  Kinzle B Mar 16 at 15:47
    
@ZhanlongZheng Yes, I'm afraid you are right: in colloquial English the distinction often vanishes; this is because can for ability has been giving way to be able to for the past two centuries, so the distinction is less critical. But it should be maintained in formal English. –  StoneyB Mar 16 at 15:50
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@ZhanlongZheng Just for the record, I upvoted Laure's answer, which covers some territory mine does not. In such a complicated subject it is usual to have multiple good answers dealing with different aspects of a question; that is the great advantage of the SE format. –  StoneyB Mar 16 at 17:17
  1. Not correct grammar because it mixes future (might) and past (last month)

  2. and 3. "might" versus "could"... "Could" implies "capability" - the ability to do something. Might, on the other hand, implies simply whether something can happen or not, regardless of whether a person makes it happen, or it happens to them outside their control, or whatever

So #2 means perhaps he went to Beijing last month, but we don't know. Maybe he went. Maybe he didn't.

And #3 means he was capable of making a trip to Beijing last month. It says and implies nothing about whether he did or not.

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