I listened. I could hear something. - implies that I was able to hear something.

I listened. I could have heard something. - means that I am not sure whether I heard something or not. But it's more likely that I did.

Is my understanding of these two examples correct?

Also consider these:

I could have heard something from their talk, but I'm not sure if that's true.


I could hear something from their talk, but I'm not sure if that's true.

Do they still bear the same meaning?
1. I am not certain if I heard something, and I'm not certain if that's true.
2. I certainly heard something, but I'm not sure if that's true.


1 Answer 1


Could is both the past tense of can and a conditional modal, depending on how its used.

Your first example is the past tense of can. In the present tense, it would be:

I am listening, and I can hear something.

Your second sentence is conditional. It doesn't really mean what you said, but rather it means that had X conditions been true, Y would be true, too.

I could have heard something if they had been speaking more loudly.

The if-clause is the condition, and were that condition be true, than apodosis (could have heard) would also be true. But if the condition is not true, the apodosis is also not true. Specifically with could, there's the sense that the protasis, the if-clause, is not true. So:

I could have heard something

usually means that you did not, in fact, hear anything.

If it's still up in the air, you would use would:

If they were to speak louder, I would hear something.

  • What about these: "I could have heard something" and "I might have heard something".. are they interchangeable? In my opinion, the first example is vague, isn't it? It could have a condition, and if that condition was true, something would have been possible. I just want to make sure that my understanding of these goes into right direction.
    – nullbyte
    Commented Mar 16, 2017 at 4:10
  • I'm confused, because I ran into these examples, where the "could + p.p" and "might + p.p." mean the same thing. You can find something like: "He could have stuck in traffic" and "He might have stuck in traffic", where the author expresses uncertainty in both sentences, right?
    – nullbyte
    Commented Mar 16, 2017 at 5:45

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