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He had a clear idea – he needed seven years of peace and quiet in order to work. (1) In America he could not have it. (2) In America he could not have had it. So he went back to Russia.

Does could not have it (the first form) imply that he actually tried to attain peace and quiet? In the second form it is clear that he did not, because the full thought would sound "if he had tried to have it, he could not have had it."

But does the first form say that some attempts were made, or it states that if they had been made, they would have been futile?

  • "You might think that, I couldn't possibly comment". I don't think that implies Francis Urquhart made an effort to comment, but found himself unable to do so. And I can certainly say "Intelligent life could not evolve in the centre of the sun" without implying that it tried and failed. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 24 '14 at 13:15
  • Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Like many English turns of phrase, it all depends on context. "I could not (usually couldn't) have said it better myself." – Jolenealaska Mar 24 '14 at 23:55
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I don't think the attempts are implied - at least not by the sheer use of "could not ".

I could not buy a ticket yesterday because I had forgotten my wallet.
I could not help him with his homework as I know nothing about maths.
I could not enjoy the weather yesterday as I was closed up in my cellar the whole day.

In none of these cases would anyone assume I actually tried to do the things I couldn't do.

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  • 1
    Note the same words could be used in a context where you tried and failed. Indeed, in your examples, you could say #2 if you tried to help him with his homework but gave up in despair. My point being, "could not" could mean tried and failed, or could mean didn't try because it was hopeless, depending on context. – Jay Mar 24 '14 at 20:49
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SHORT ANSWER FumbleFingers's comment and oerkelens' answer prove by giving counter-examples that neither "could not have it" nor "could not have had it" implies an attempt.

LONGER NON-ANSWER Here, what I'm trying to describe is in which way "could not have it" and "could not have had it" are different. I'm doing so because I find interesting the use of "could not have had it" when two references of time are not explicitly given in the context. Let's consider both options:

(1) He had a clear idea – he needed seven years of peace and quiet in order to work. In America he could not have it. So he went back to Russia.

(2) He had a clear idea – he needed seven years of peace and quiet in order to work. In America he could not have had it. So he went back to Russia.

I think the key to answer this question is not in the modal verb could, but in the use of the perfect aspect: have it vs have had it.

Whenever the perfect aspect is used in a sentence, it makes us think of two instants in time. For example, in:

I have been reading for two hours (present perfect)

the two instants in time are now and the moment I started reading.

However, in

He could not have had it (past perfect)

what are these two instants? In the quoted text, there is only one reference of time. When a second reference of time is missing, my mind defaults to the present. So when I read "he could not have had it", I understand that something could not be had in the past, but in the present it could be possible.

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  • Your last sentence. The question was if "could not have it" implies attempts. – Graduate Mar 25 '14 at 1:05
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    I agree with Nico that the key is "have" vs. "have had". To be precise, using the perfect "have had" hints the sense of "unreal". In (1) "In America he could not have it. So he went back to Russia." he knew it's impossible, so he left America. In (2) "In America he could not have had it. So he went back to Russia." he decided to leave America, and now thinking back, it would have been impossible if he chose to stay. – Damkerng T. Mar 25 '14 at 2:50
  • @Graduate I've edited the answer to warn the reader that I'm only trying to complement oerkelens' answer. – Nico Mar 25 '14 at 6:57
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It means that conditions were not in place to have a state of peace, whether or not attempts had been made.

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