I'd like to ask if this sentence describes something that happened in the past or something of the present or future.

"We could not conceive that he might soon be dead."

Does it mean 'we' were not able to conceive his death or we are not likely to be able to conceive that?

The sentence is an example sentence from Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary in the entry for 'conceive'. There is no context attached to it at all.

As I am a non-native English speaker, understanding the meaning of this sentence is tricky. It is because the modal verb could can be used for two different ways: the first use is for describing something you were not able to do in the past as in I couldn't hear you because there was a lot of noise on the street, and the second use is for a guess or an assumption about the present or future as in I don't think she could afford it. She has recently lost her job.

Thank you for your help. Any explanation will be appreciated.

2 Answers 2


Without any other context, I'd read this as the past tense and describing a past state. The simplest reading is that this is "narration" and a speaker is telling a story about the death, or near-death of a loved one.

It would be hard to read this as "I would be unable to conceive that he might soon be dead, even if I tried". That reading doesn't make much sense, pragmatically.

  • 1
    Yes! its basically like this narrator (in 2019) is telling a story about a past year (say 2017). They are narrating in 2019 that in 2017 (this is the "then") they were unable to imagine that X would die in 2018. James K, would you agree?
    – AIQ
    Sep 22, 2019 at 8:13
  • Thank you for the kind, neat answer, sir. Sep 22, 2019 at 19:57

I think that it was definitely a past tense..

I could not conceive that he might soon be dead

It means that I was not able to digest the idea that he might soon be dead

It is not like a doctor sayingit could be typhoid

Here could is used to just talking about a present possibility

  • Thank you very much for the clear answer. But is it only the context from the sentence that we can infer it from? Or is it that the structure could not cannot be used as a present possibility as opposed to could, because of not following? :) Sep 22, 2019 at 20:04
  • And what if the sentence, instead, was like this: I could conceive that he might soon be dead? I am sorry if I am asking too much here. Your answer is actually very helpful, and I feel like I am getting greedy. :) Sep 23, 2019 at 18:30

You must log in to answer this question.

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