Let's say you have passed an exam, and then you can't believe it, it seems surreal. And you say:

''Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I COULD/CAN actually pass the exam''

Which is the correct tense here? I'm thinking about if I have to make it a parallel sentence by using ''could'' but ambivalent coz' I am talking about the ability of passing the exam.

  • 2
    did implies could, doesn't it? Do, implies can, doesn't it?
    – Lambie
    Aug 31, 2018 at 15:32
  • Why is there an apostrophe after “coz”? You should use standard English, but failing that, you should at least refrain from randomly punctuating things.
    – ColleenV
    Aug 31, 2018 at 16:35
  • @Lambie, yes it does, but there is a mixes of the 'should be' tenses here that I can't underpin clearly. The main clause is past tense, and then the relative is not or should be thingamajig.
    – John Arvin
    Aug 31, 2018 at 18:31
  • @ColleenV, I have just been seeing its usage from the other ESLs over the internet. Is this wrong if your register is just a casual conversation? -I wanted to take it a bit lightly that's why...
    – John Arvin
    Aug 31, 2018 at 18:34
  • 1
    Posts can be informal, but they should be in standard English. There are plenty of examples of bad English in widespread use on the Internet. Being sloppy doesn’t put them into the “informal register”. You could use “'cause” I guess, but there’s no reason to add an apostrophe to the end of “coz”. There are no elided letters there. This site is supposed to be a reference for future visitors so using chat room type language like coz, ur, bro et. al. isn’t really appropriate. It makes it more difficult for people to understand what you’ve written.
    – ColleenV
    Aug 31, 2018 at 18:54

2 Answers 2


1) Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could actually pass the exam.

2) Spoken language: Never in my wildest dreams did I think "I can actually pass the exam". [quoting oneself]

And the "I can actually pass the exam" would be given air quotes in speech or a change of tone when speaking it to show it is quoted within an utterance.

3) Never in my wildest dreams do I think I can actually pass the exam.

That is how I would write them. Unless you part about passing the exam is quoted within the utterance, it has to be either in the past or in the present: can//do and could//did.

My answer is the same as the other except with regard to handling the quoted part.


You're actually talking about what you did or did not think, not about any ability or lack of ability.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think

... I could pass the exam finite clause complement, the tense matching that of the main clause

... "I can pass this exam". direct "speech/thought"

  • But wouldn't this form be a talk about the past, like I'm recounting it? If, on the other hand, I say it now, about my present emotion, shouldn't it be in the perfect: Never in my wildest dreams have I thought that I can\could (both are possible?) pass the exam? Aug 31, 2018 at 16:52
  • @Mv Log: It is a statement about the past ( did...think ) and I didn't say otherwise, so I don't understand your "But wouldn't". With the present perfect (Never in my wildest dreams have I thought that...) some form of modal remoteness seems more idiomatic to my ear (could, would) but I wouldn't say that can is ungrammatical.
    – TimR
    Aug 31, 2018 at 17:04
  • I believe that the variant with the perfect tense is what the OP meant. The variant with the past simple would be more appropriate if he recalled, e.g. his yesterday reaction to the passing the exam. Aug 31, 2018 at 17:18
  • 1
    @Mv Log: Let's say that he has just been told moments ago that he passed the exam he took yesterday. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I could pass the exam. would be perfectly idiomatic and not less appropriate than the present perfect, despite the relative recency of the passing, because what is being referred to are dreams prior to the passing of the exam, the past. If the speaker is referring to his recent state of mind, Never in my wildest dreams have I thought that I could some day pass this exam would still be more idiomatic than can.
    – TimR
    Aug 31, 2018 at 17:35
  • In in my wildest dreams did I think "I can pass this exam". But not without quotation marks (inverted commas). And unless it is written like that, it's really not grammatical. And I guess if spoken, one would use air quotes....
    – Lambie
    Aug 31, 2018 at 19:12

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .