Last night, while talking with my girlfriend, I came across a construction that had me boggled: if I want to refer to a secular event in the past that could have, but didn't, occur, am I always bound to use the modal perfect structure? I.e. if, say, I penned an extended story about a kidnapping, would it be possible for me to say:

They held me captive for days and days. I could escape, but the Stockholm Syndrome kicked in, leaving me unable to take any action.

Or should I always say the following in such situations?

They held me captive for days and days. I could have escaped but (...)

Another set of examples:

We had enough funds. We could buy/could have bought this property, although at the time it was just a whim.

Is the "could have" form limited to relating to personal experiences, or is it perfectly fine to use it under more literary conditions? Which one is more preferable in the above sentences?

1 Answer 1


Your choice of tense establishes where your consciousness is residing at any given moment. Consciousness is capable of teleporting through space and time. We call it memory. If you choose "I could escape but adored my captors too much to try" your mind (or the temporal locus, if you prefer) is back in the past when you had that ability to escape; if you choose "could have escaped" you are (or the temporal locus is) in the present as you think back upon the past from your mental vantage point in the present.

  • And how about the second sentence? If I'm expressing regret, do I have to use the perfect form, or is it possible for me to just, like you suggested, switch to "the past vantage point"? Also, is sentence a) correct without the perfect form, and is the modal perfect form even possible in b) or any other sentence in which I'm mentioning a repeated action? a) I believe I could meet her. b) Although I was always late and I could easily catch a bus instead of going to school on foot every day, I refused to.
    – Bebop B.
    Sep 9, 2016 at 2:37

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