Does "couldn't" mean "the subjunctive mood" in the following sentence?

I couldn't make myself understood in English.

  • 3
    Could here is the ordinary past form of can, and there's nothing in the form or content of the sentence itself to suggest that the past form is employed to mark conditionality or irreality or politeness or anything except past tense. Dec 21, 2016 at 15:16
  • 3
    No, this is nothing like a subjunctive which uses a plain (infinitival) verb-form, as in It is vital that I be kept informed. But here, the modal verb "could" is the past tense of "can", so the meaning here is that you were unable to make yourself understood.
    – BillJ
    Dec 21, 2016 at 15:17
  • 1
    But a clause added to your sentence can affect the meaning of couldn't. "I couldn't solve a quadratic equation even if my life depended on it".
    – TimR
    Dec 21, 2016 at 15:51
  • Thank you for your kind comments. I realized that ''couldn't'' in the sentence doesn't mean the subjunctive mood. Dec 21, 2016 at 16:20

1 Answer 1


As StoneyB and BillJ comment, there is nothing in the sentence to suggest the subjunctive mood. It is just a simple statement of ability.

However as TRomano mentions you can add more to the sentence to make it subjunctive, by turning it into a hypothetical case.

I couldn't make myself understood in English even if my life depended on it"

  • 1
    Many grammarians nowadays consider the subjunctive to be a type of clause construction, not a mood form, headed by a plain (infinitival) form of the verb as in I demand that you pay me immediately. I would simply call your example a 'remote conditional'.
    – BillJ
    Dec 21, 2016 at 19:31
  • You explained to me the proper usage of "could" and gave me the practical example. Thank you for your kindness. Dec 21, 2016 at 23:53

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