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I came across the following sentence in chapter ten of "Dragonwings" by Laurence Yep:

"They looked shocked, as if not believing that all of this could happen to them. I could not help remembering what fine houses and mansions had once been there, and ..."

I have a problem with "could happen" in this context. I believe it should be "could have happened".

Here is an example sentence that I found in a similar context, and it is from a reliable source: BBC Home:

"Later in the evening small groups of older folk wandered around not quite believing that this could have happened in their own town.

Here's a related link.

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X could happen means X is believed able to happen because of a past or completed event. We don't know if it will happen, we are just saying it is able to happen.

I wonder if the boss will fire me.

He was talking to HR about your outburst. It could happen.

X could have happened means X was believed able to happen because of a past or completed event. This can be used if we know it happened and we are talking about the past possibility, or if we are not sure it happened and saying the possibility still exists.

I'm glad the boss didn't fire me.

He was talking to HR about your outburst. It could have happened. (Can mean I think you might be fired. or I think it was possible you might be fired.)

There is no could happened.

  • Even though I upvoted the answers, I'm stlll confused between 'could happen' and 'could have happened'. How can I be able to use them without being confused? 'Could happen' means something that was able to happen. Could have happened means something that 'might have happened' ? – yubraj Dec 25 '16 at 7:29
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    The difference is the first means you currently believe X could happen, whereas the second means you believed in the past X could happen. – LawrenceC Dec 26 '16 at 12:40
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The difference between could happen and could have happened is simple. Could happen is used when something actually had happened in the past.. On the other hand, could have happened is used when something didn't happen however might have happened..

In the following line,

They looked shocked, as if not believing that all of this could happen to them. I could not help remembering what fine houses and mansions had once been there,and............

As of what I understand, something happened and 'they' are shocked and can't believe that what has happened to them..

As of your other example,

Later in the evening small groups of older folk wandered around not quite believing that this could have happened in their own town

Something didn't happen in that town and the folks can't believe that how that thing couldn't happen in their town..

So, to conclude, in your first sentence, 'could happen' and 'could have happened' both can be used, depending upon the situation..

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    "... older folk wandered around not quite believing that this could have happened in their own town" This implies the thing did happen, but they are still trying to figure out why (or even believe it really did happen). While you are right about "could have happened" sometimes meaning "it didn't happen, but it could have", that's not always true. – Andrew Dec 23 '16 at 20:56

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