This question was influenced by this one. I think there is a situation when 'could not [verb]' implies that some attempts were made.

I could not find him.

I could not come up with a context that would be free of the implication that the subject actually tried to find him.

Can you comment on this? Approve or disprove it.

  • Do you mean a context for that specific sentence (I could not find him), or for any sentence using this type of structure?
    – Alicja Z
    Mar 31, 2014 at 23:52
  • @AlicjaZ: Let's try just for that specific sentence.
    – mosceo
    Apr 3, 2014 at 9:46
  • 1
    @Graduate I think the implication of the attempt (or wish to attempt) is not from "could" but from "find". Changing the verb and the sense of making an attempt could be much more relaxed. Even embedding it in other construction could shift the sense a whole lot, for example, I knew I couldn't find him. I wasn't allowed so. Apr 3, 2014 at 10:03
  • @DamkerngT. I wonder if, in your example, it's a case of the second sentence influencing the first (a sort of grammatical revisionist history or whatever): by default, we understand "I couldn't find him" as meaning "I tried to find him and failed", but added context can change that meaning to "I wasn't allowed to try to find him".
    – Alicja Z
    Apr 3, 2014 at 13:57
  • ...and, working off of that, perhaps this type of "I couldn't [verb]" structure doesn't imply that attempts were made, so much as that there was an interest in making such attempts (but whether the attempts were made, or couldn't be for some reason, is another matter)?
    – Alicja Z
    Apr 3, 2014 at 13:58

3 Answers 3


The usage of "could" implies but does not require an actual attempt to be made.

I could not find him (because I never looked).

I could not climb the ladder (because I am missing all four of my limbs).

I could not dance to the music (because I am deaf).

If you "could not" do something, it simply means that something caused you to fail in the task. Not trying is (almost) guaranteed to make you fail your task.

(I say 'almost' because it is very possible to not go looking for something but end up stumbling over it anyway! Sometimes even literally.)


It depends on context.

I could not find him.

probably means there was an attempt. However

I could not look for him.

does not. Here the speaker was probably unable to look for him, busy doing someing else or such.


The confusion might be something to do with the verb.

"Could" is the imperfect tense. Synonymous with "I was not able to", this does imply an attempt was made. If one says, "I was not able to do this", you give the impression (not strictly, but an impression nonetheless) that you have evidence to back up your point, as a 'failed attempt'.

"Could" is the conditional tense. "I could do something" could also mean 'I would be able to', but as this is only condition it doesn't imply any attempts were made.

The same word used for two different tenses makes the meaning ambiguous.

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