I saw the following sentence in this article. Hong Kong politician hired taxi to fetch TOILET PAPER | Daily Mail Online

Many have questioned why she couldn't have gone to a local convenience store instead of travelling to her former home in the exclusive Peak district.

I am confused about the usage of couldn't have gone. I learnt from this thread that could could be an epistemic modal, which refers to possibility. But I do not think the author is saying it was impossible for her to have gone to a local convenience store at that night. So, how should I interpret couldn't have gone here?

  • If I use didn't go instead of couldn't have gone, what is the nuance of meaning between the two?
    – Wesley To
    Jan 27, 2017 at 13:55

2 Answers 2


I don't agree that this is epistemic.

The question asked of her could have been

Why didn't you go ... ?

which would be neutral. But a stronger question that might be asked of her is

Why couldn't you go to a local convenience store ?

with an implication something like "Of all the choices open to you, why was it not possible for you to do this one?" It has a connotation of annoyance or frustration. And it is certainly idiomatic.

"Many questioned why she couldn't have gone" reads to me like the indirect version of that second question. So I think it is the ordinary deontic "Why was it not possible?"

  • 1
    +1. But I don't think I'd call this 'deontic', since there's no sense of obligation. Some writers call this and futurive will 'dynamic' modality, which as near as I can tell means it's not semantically "modal" at all. Jan 26, 2017 at 23:27
  • I hadn't come across that term, @StoneyB. Makes sense.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 26, 2017 at 23:29

Context decides this.

She couldn't have gone can be synonymous with she was unable to go. If the conversation is talking about her ability to do things, this meaning is likely intended.

She couldn't have gone can also be synonymous with it was not possible for her to go with an express or context-implied because of X. If the conversation is not talking about her, but rather trying to reconstruct a timeline of events, this meaning is likely intended.

Your example doesn't really provide a lot of context by itself, but the source article you've cited fills in the blanks. This sentence from the source article is the clue:

After she revealed her story to reporters over the weekend, Lam has been ridiculed on social media.

So your example is talking about her story, therefore is trying to reconstruct a timeline of events, and we are discussing logical conclusions.

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