What is the difference between the emboldened parts below:

We all love and respect Dadlani and he is a great friend. We will speak to him about his decision. As for his statement on the religious leader, I do not think if a religious preacher, who gives a good message to society speaks at a certain forum, there is anything wrong about it. Dadlani...

  1. ...could not be reached for comment.

  2. ...could not have been reached for comment.

What is the difference between

a) Could not be reached for comment.

b) Could not have been reached for comment.

  • 2
    In use, (a) reports an observation (i.e. they called but he didn't pick up the phone); (b) states an impossibility (e.g. he was travelling in Spain and left his phone in Paris). – Lawrence Aug 29 '16 at 14:28

It's a very subtle difference. "Could not have" is used to definitively declare that an impossibility occurred in the past. As in, it was impossible for the person to be reached. It assumes the writer has full knowledge of the possibility of an activity. "Could not be" expresses that an attempt was made by the writer to reach the person, but it was unsuccessful.

An example is: "He could not have taken a call at 5pm because he was on a flight to Baltimore." The person declaring that would have to have that knowledge to know the impossibility. Another person who didn't have such knowledge would say, "I attempted to call him, but he could not be reached." They don't know why he couldn't be reached, or that it was impossible to do so.

  • Overflow, thanks for your reply. So in, "He could not have taken a call at 5pm because he was on a flight to Baltimore." does it mean we/I didn't attempt to call him at all as we knew he would not take a call? Or did we call him? I am confused. Or can I also use it this way: "He competed with Usain Bolt, but we all know he could not have won." – Policewala Aug 29 '16 at 16:41
  • 2
    It means you know he could not have taken a call, so you wouldn't have tried. You can also use it to express a near certainty, or an assumed certainty. – BuffyOverflow Aug 29 '16 at 16:51
  • The difference between the two are just too subtle in that context, so you could say either if you knew the person could not be reached during that time. – BuffyOverflow Aug 29 '16 at 18:07
  • It means you know now that you would not have been able to contact him then (at some time in the past). It doesn't make any difference what you knew (or didn't know) in the past when the incident actually took place. If you didn't know then that he was on a plane, you might have tried to phone him, but that makes no difference to what you know now. – alephzero Aug 29 '16 at 20:16
  • @Policewala - the Usain Bolt usage is again subtly different: the competition is definitely over (from "competed"), but "we all know he could not" is actually just a very strongly stated opinion masquerading as fact, and a subtle invocation of the "bandwagon fallacy" -- i.e., "all the smart people think this". We may "all know" but we also may all be completely wrong. Maybe Bolt sprained an ankle on the first turn and didn't finish. If it were "we all know he did not win", then we'd be talking about an established fact: the subject lost. As stated, it's actually still open. – Joe McMahon Aug 29 '16 at 21:20

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