Excerpt from Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice':

"You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so."

Form the context of the book it seems that here 'could' is being used in the future tense. I would like to know more about this kind of usage, as when I think of "You could not make me happy", it seems the usage is in the past tense. Also in the past tense we could have also used "You could not have made me happy." Please comment/elaborate about these two usage of 'could' in the past as well. Thank you

  • 1
    This modal verb doesn't really indicate tense. You should read this Feb 17, 2017 at 16:26
  • Referring to the article: "We could have lunch early." Does this indicate future possibility(Although you have mentioned that this modal verb doesn't indicate tense). And also we are using the phrase "Could I pay by credit card?". Are we not using the phrase "Can I pay by credit card?", because it seems impolite, or are there other reasons for that?
    – Soumee
    Feb 17, 2017 at 16:40
  • yeah, doesnt really indicate tenses, but sometimes it does. For could've, you can read it here. Using the past form(could) just make your command or request sound indirect, thus more polite and tentative Feb 17, 2017 at 16:47

3 Answers 3


English can indeed get a little confusing when you start looking at all the different time tenses you can imply in a sentence, depending on the grammar you employ. I will use your example (future tense) sentence and re-write it to show differing tenses:

"You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so."

The use of 'could', 'would', or 'will be' all imply future tense. The past tense version would be:

"You could not have made me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could have made you so."

In this version, adding "have", "had" or "was" to 'could', or 'should' shifts the sentence into past tense. The present tense version of the sentence would be:

"You can not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who can make you so."

"Can" may be used either as future or present tense, but using "is" or "am" almost always implies present tense.

One of the confusing things about these sentences is that her use of the words "I am convinced" actually sets that specific part of all of these example sentences into present tense; in other words she is convinced (in the present) that in the (past, present, or future, depending on the sentence version used) she (was, is, or will be) unhappy with him, and he with her.

  • So the latter part of the sentence indicates whether the context is in past or future? Is there is a rule regarding this?
    – Soumee
    Feb 17, 2017 at 17:04
  • there are actually three parts in each sentence with tense: "you can/could/will make me happy", "I am/was/will be convinced" and "I am.was/will be the last woman in the world that will/is/was making you so." Each could be worded into a different tense, depending on which words are selected. Of course, not all of these tense combinations are necessarily going to actually make sense. Feb 17, 2017 at 17:20
  • I'm beginning to feel like the Spanish Inquisition....Ok, make that four sections with differing tenses; the section "I was/am/will be the last woman in the world that was/is/will make you so." needs to be split into two parts with possible different tenses. Feb 17, 2017 at 17:28
  • Well certain things can be tricky to understand. My grammar is bad so I need precise clarifications. :P :)
    – Soumee
    Feb 17, 2017 at 17:41
  • Anyways you really clarified my doubt. This is precisely what I wanted to know....
    – Soumee
    Feb 17, 2017 at 17:42

It is not future: it is timeless. "It is not possible for you to make me happy".

"Could" is historically the past of "can", and in some contexts has that meaning; but (like most or all of the past tenses of modals) it can also be used timelessly.

You can't necessarily tell which use is which just by the words: you need to take the whole context into account. For example, suppose a divorced couple are discussing what went wrong with their marriage. If one says "You could not make me happy", they would probably be referring to the actual past ("You were not able to make me happy"); though it still could be the timeless non-past as in this example.


Yes, could if often used this way. "Could you please make me a cup of tea?" I do not have tea. I want tea. Is it possible for the person I am asking to make me tea. In the Austen example, Elizabeth is saying that in her opinion, Darcy is incapable of making her happy and that she is incapable (it is not possible) of making Darcy happy as well. Could means is it possible?

from Google Dictionary:

could verb past of can

  • used to indicate possibility
    "they could be right"

  • used in making polite requests
    "could I use the phone?"

  • The phrase "Could I pay by credit card?" is used instead of "Can I pay by credit card?" because the latter seems impolite? What is the harm if we use the latter one?
    – Soumee
    Feb 17, 2017 at 16:44
  • 1
    You are able to use it either way. I do not think it is impolite. Can means "Am I able to?" Could means, "Is it possible for me to?" The 'could' is slightly more polite, but with the credit card example makes no difference. "Could you give me tea?", is more polite than, "Can you give me tea?" in a social situation. This is common usage, not grammar exactly. It's a social norm.
    – WRX
    Feb 17, 2017 at 16:47
  • It's not Mr.Darcy Elizabeth is referring to, it's Mr. Collins, cousin of the Bennet sisters, who was to inherit the property of Mr. Bennet after his demise.
    – Soumee
    Feb 17, 2017 at 16:49
  • @user3237657 Sorry! I haven't read it in a long time. She was right about Mr. Collins, wasn't she!?
    – WRX
    Feb 17, 2017 at 16:50
  • 2
    The difference between 'can' and 'could' in either the credit card or the tea sentences is that 'can' asks if it is possible for you to do something (i.e. do I have the dexterity, strength, or intelligence to pour tea or use a credit card, and is the tea or credit cart present so I can do so with success). You can replace 'can' with 'could' and get a similar meaning, but 'could' also implies asking permission of someone, and thus is more polite because you are asking not only if it is possible, but also if they have any objections to your doing so. Feb 17, 2017 at 16:59

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