For example:

A plan that could

I see this "that could" part (with no complement) everywhere, as in:

The Little Engine that Could.

What does this phrase mean?

  • 1
    Too vague I guess, some more context would help the question.
    – Mistu4u
    Oct 2, 2013 at 12:57
  • 1
    The word that can be used in several different ways, so the expression won't always mean the same thing. The that could in "That could be the key to solve this mystery" doesn't necessarily function the same as the that could in "Flight 322 is the one that could get us to Portland on time." This might be "too broad".
    – J.R.
    Oct 2, 2013 at 13:06
  • @kih1930 Do you really see this everywhere? I can't think of any other examples like (noun phrase) + that could. To me, it seems fairly idiosyncratic, and I'd always imagined it was specific to The Little Engine that Could.
    – user230
    Oct 2, 2013 at 22:06
  • @snailboat I see it often enough that it seems worth having the question; I've always thought of The Little Engine when I've heard it, but it's one of those shorthand expressions that's become more or less free-floating. Oct 3, 2013 at 5:56
  • @Mistu4u That's the point: what “the X that could” means as a standalone phrase, not when it's “X that could VERB”. Oct 3, 2013 at 12:01

1 Answer 1


That could (or that can) by itself is an idiomatic usage that has an implied verb that is something like succeed. The Little Engine that Could keeps repeating the phrase "I think I can [make it over the mountain]", and the headline you mention means that this is "the plan that could [solve the problem]".

  • Is “The X that could” always (derived from) an allusion to The Little Engine that Could, or did the phrase exist before that? Oct 3, 2013 at 12:00
  • I don't understand “the plan that could” as meaning “the plan that has a chance of solving the problem [and we should try it and see]” or “the plan that is capable of solving the problem [if nothing else gets in the way]” or “the plan that is sure to solve the problem [provided it is adopted]” (which one do you think it means, by the way?). I thought that “the X that could” implied perseverance — a plan that's been proposed times and times again, or that has spent a long time in being carried out. Oct 3, 2013 at 12:05
  • @Gilles I can't recall ever having seen this use, but if I ever did see it, I think I'd interpret it the same way you do here. It think it'd have to be using the title as a phrasal template (a snowclone).
    – user230
    Oct 3, 2013 at 12:15

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