When there's no other verb which indicates the tense in a sentence like

I could eat it.

, not like

I did all I could.

, then does the could-phrase always have present or future tense?

In other words, when the "could+V" is the only verb in a sentence, can this have any meaning related to some past event?

(except the negative form or could+have+pp form or any other special(?) verbs such as "hear","smell")

  • well I guess it can be used Past, and Future, it just depends on what phrasing you put in front / behind it. Commented May 8, 2019 at 12:09
  • @TaylorSpark Could you give me any example please? (and I edited the post a little)
    – dolco
    Commented May 8, 2019 at 12:12
  • Sorry I have to admit, I actually don't know much about this until now, you actually included examples in your question though. "I did all I could" is past-tense, while "I could eat it all" or related are future-tense. Commented May 8, 2019 at 12:16

3 Answers 3


When used as a modal verb, then, yes, "could" by itself always refers to present or future possibility.

I could answer this question.

If you want to use this in the past, use "could have"

I could have answered this question.

I'm not sure what part of speech "could" is in, "He did all he could", but as it refers to past events, I see it as an ellipsis for something like:

He did all he could have done.


"Could" is the past tense of "can", but as a modal verb it can also show future possibility.

Your example of "I could eat it" is lacking some context. At a guess I'd say it was talking about the possibility of eating something - someone looking at a cake might say "I could eat that" to indicate that they want to eat it.

In another context, a past event could be referenced, for example:

When I was younger I could eat cake and not put on weight.

Or you can use "could have" and place the verb "eat" in the past tense to reference past possible event:

I could have eaten more of that cake.


It's probably generally true that "could VERB" refers to the present or future, but not always. You have to look at context.

For example, consider the sentence, "Napoleon could defeat any army that came against him." That's a perfectly valid sentence, but clearly refers to something that happened in the past.

Or more simply, "When I was young I could lift 200 pounds, but today I can barely life 50." Again, clearly referring to the past.

I'm afraid I can't say what the general rule is for how you would tell. When the sentence includes specifics about time, "I could do this tomorrow" versus "Yesterday I could to this", than it's easy. But besides that, I'm not sure.

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