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The following parts are taken from PEU1 122.7 & 123.5:

Could have + past participle is sometimes used to talk about past events which are not certain to have happened (like may/might have- see 339.7).

Who sent those flowers?- I'm not sure. It could have been your mother.

and

Could have + past participle can refer to present situations which were possible but have not been realised.

He could have been Prime Minister now if he hadn't decided to leave politics.

We could have spent today at the seaside, but we thought it was going to rain, so we decided not to.

I'm wondering whether it is possible to substitute "could be" for "could have been" in the first two examples and unreal "could be spending" for "could have spent" in the last one? I think the replacement would bring no difference, but I'm not sure.

1. PEU = Michael Swan's, Practical English Usage.

  • 1
    Since could + infinitive w/o to is usually used to indicate possibility in the present, could have + past participle is deployed to indicate possibility in the past. So I think the first one is not 'real perfect' (ell.stackexchange.com/a/6313/1513 might help) However, I'm not sure about the rest. – Fantasier Apr 27 '14 at 17:09
  • What about "may have done.."? It's also deployed to indicate possibility in the past and it is indeed a modal perfect construction. (ell.stackexchange.com/questions/13255/… might help) @Fantasier – Kinzle B May 1 '14 at 11:24
  • Well, I think it depends. From my understandings, it may be a real perfect, or it may not. May have can be used to talk about possibility in the past. Whether it's a real perfect or not relies entirely on the meaning it conveys. Is the speaker talking about the possibility of the present state based on something that locates in time before (the meaning of 'real perfect'), or is he or she simply saying what possibly happened in the past? If it's the former, then it's a real perfect; if it's the latter, then it's not a real perfect. – Fantasier May 1 '14 at 12:26
  • Quite so, I think I have figured it out. Thx! @Fantasier – Kinzle B May 1 '14 at 12:32
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1. Who sent those flowers?- I'm not sure. It could have been your mother.

The above is correct written form. There's a lot of latitude with speaking, of course. Here are some alternatives:

  • Who sent these flowers? Couda' been your mother.
  • Who sent these flowers? Maybe your mother?
  • Who sent these flowers? Could be your mother. <- not likely but understandable. This and other types of "incorrect and slightly odd" spoken responses happens often enough. It can make one think a second longer to fill in the gap or an opportunity to make a joke: "Oh! My mother turned into flowers? So who do you think sent my mother? (haha)"

2) He could have been Prime Minister now if he hadn't decided to leave politics.

The above is correct written form. You could find a place for your "could be" form in spoken language as a parallel, emphatic, emotional voice. The following illustrates this with a similar construction, but with some necessary context:

  • Man #1: "It's not so bad...I'm doing well now... I've worked my way up to vice president of the Acme Corp!"
  • Man's Tough Friend: "Don't give me that! You could be CEO now if you hadn't messed everything up in the first place."

3) We could have spent today at the beach, but we thought it was going to rain, so we decided not to.

The above third case is not correctly worded as you stated above. It doesn't make sense to say "I could have done X, but since Y I decided not to." That's because the decision was totally volitional. The format is "I would have done X, but since Y I decided not to." So the original sentence above would be more natural as:

  • "We [were going to spend | would have spent] [the day | today] at the beach, but we thought it was going to rain, so we decided not to."

To use your original sentence wording ("could have spent"), it would need to be something less within the speaker's control, and perhaps an expression of disappointment like this:

  • I could have spent the day at the beach, but Wendy got sick so I had to stay and babysit. Hrmph! (Note that this is also volitional in an absolute sense; yet has a sense of blame.)

To make it your alternative "could be spending" suggests a greater disappointment that is still ongoing and not fully accepted:

  • On the phone: "I could be spending the day at the beach, right now, with all my friends, but Wendy just had to get sick and so I'm just stuck here baby sitting. Hrmph! (Note that this is also volitional in an absolute sense; but has a greater sense of disappointment and blame.)

The most mature way to handle the situation would be decisive and volitional:

  • "Yes, I know... I was planning on spending the day at the beach with you guys. But Wendy got sick so I'm staying home to take care of her today. I'm certainly not going out if Wendy needs me. Have fun... I gotta go now. Bye."
  • This is a great answer, but I don't understand Part 2 in your asnwer. I just cannot see its difference from the PEU example. Can you plz elaborate on that? (BTW, sometimes I do doubt the trustworthiness of PEU. Maybe a new edition is needed.) – Kinzle B May 28 '14 at 22:25
  • As I understand it, PUE is very good for what it does, and the preface discusses some of it's "shortcomings" which are, in a sense, on purpose in order to focus on it's primary goals. Compromises must be made between being concise-and-usable vs. being complete-yet-overwhelming. :) – CoolHandLouis May 29 '14 at 6:20
  • Fair enough, but can you plz address my question in my previous comment? I just don't see why "now" is used in the past tense (could have been Prime Minister now). @CoolHandLouis – Kinzle B May 29 '14 at 6:59
  • Honest it's a bit of a mystery to me as well - it sounds "ok". I think it's more emphatic re the present condition and "20/20 hindsight". Consider the following hypothetical Hillary to Clinton: "Just remember, you're President now because of all I've done for you!" The structure is occasionally used (I've heard it) But then, the following seems to show there is a difference even better: "You could be pregnant now if you hadn't used birth control." / "You could have been pregnant if you hadn't used birth control." – CoolHandLouis May 29 '14 at 12:54
  • OK, maybe it's worth asking a new question. I'll do it. @CoolHandLouis – Kinzle B May 29 '14 at 13:04

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