This is what I saw in a movie.

  • I borrowed his pen yesterday
  • I promised this morning to go to the movies with him this evening
  • I had a business near his house at around lunch, so I tried stop by and return his pen along with it.
  • But I couldn't see him
  • I returned home and was reminded of that I had promised to meet him this evening
  • So I decided I'm going to give his pen to him when we meet at the movie place. And I say myself...

"Oh, right... I'm going to go to the movies with him today, so I could've returned his pen then"

Here, the thing bugs me is that why did 'I' use 'could have pp' instead of just 'could return'? Shouldn't it refer to the future event?


2 Answers 2


The short answer to OP's why did 'I' use 'could have pp' instead of just 'could return'? is that OP isn't a native speaker (so he made the wrong choice of verb form).

The construction could have [verbed] usually references something that might have happened in the past. It doesn't work in OP's context (where "then" refers to the future time "later today, when we're at the movies"), because OP is referring to the act of returning the pen, which will (possibly) happen in the future.

But note that there are very similar contexts where it's fine. Specifically, when by the anticipated future time ("then", in OP's example) the action will / might have been completed (so it becomes "the Past in the Future"). For example...

"The boss wants to know when you'll finish the report"
"I'm working until 6 o'clock tonight, so I could have / could've finished [by] then"

In my example, the highlighted "conditional Present Perfect" element refers to what will be "the past", at that future time (without the conditional element, it would be I will have finished by then / at that time / before I leave work).

Also note that the Present tense conditional (I could finish it today) refers to something that may or may not happen (it's still uncertain), whereas the Perfect form (I could have finished it today) normally refers to something that didn't happen (it would require an unusual context for the speaker not to know whether he did in fact finish it).

But that "uncertainty" could still apply in some "not-yet-arrived" hypothetical future. In my example, it's still possible (at time of speaking) that I will have finished the report before the time I leave work.

  • Thank you so much. Now I know 'could have returned' is fine. But is just saying 'could return' that wrong? And one guy at the comment section said so too. I'm confused.
    – dolco
    Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 13:56
  • Without being able to see the full context in which "one guy" said there was something wrong, I couldn't say. But I can assure you that for your exact context, I could return it then is perfectly correct, and I could have returned it then is (almost) completely incorrect. But suppose your example was preceded by context focused on some later time (midnight tonight, say, long after you'd have come back from the movies). So "then" might be understood as referring to that later time, which would be "valid-ish" (much more so if it's by then). Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 14:13

The sentence

Oh, right... I'm going to go to the movies with him today, so I could've returned his pen then.

is referring to stopping by the friend's house at lunchtime. The speaker realises that they've wasted their effort by making a special trip to their friend's house when they could have waited until tonight to return the pen instead.

This is entirely idiomatic in speech but it's not something that you'd write in formal language.

"Could" often refers to an unreal or hypothetical situation and that's what's happening here. It's a hypothetical situation about the past. If it was about the future and not hypothetical, you would use "can" instead:

Oh, right... I'm going to go to the movies with him today, so I can return his pen then.

Combining "could" with the future makes it uncertain:

Oh, right... I'm going to go to the movies with him today, so I could return his pen then... if I remember to take it!

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