The following is taken from PEU1 339.8:

May/might have ... can sometimes refer to the present or future.

#1 I'll try phoning him, but he may have gone out by now.

#2 By the end of this year I might have saved some money.

For #2, I think it would create ambiguity without context:

It could refer to my expectation that I am likely to have saved some money by the end of this year. I think this is what it's intended to mean here.

But it could also stand for a hypothetical situation where it would have been possible for me to save some money by the end of this year if I hadn't spent a lot on my new Audi.

Is my understanding correct?

If my understanding is correct, then is it possible to substitute could have for might have with meaning unchanged?

#3 By the end of this year I could have saved some money.

Is #3 also ambiguous without context? It could refer to an attainable expectation or a possibilty that will not be able to come true.

Or, to put it another way, can could have be used to express factual possibility without time restraints just like might/may have in #1 and #2, both meaning "by the end of this year I will possibly have saved some money."?

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

  • It's not about "will have" vs "could have". That's not what I'm asking here. As I said, without context it's ambiguous. @user3169
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 5:13
  • Take a gander: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/24463/… @user3169
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 5:47
  • OK I'll reconsider this one.
    – user3169
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 5:49
  • I'm having difficulty with the usage of save, a word which is in itself ambiguous. To me, to save money means either (a) I save money on a purchase when I buy a TV for $349 instead of $449 (even though I might spend the $100 saved on something else) or (b) I keep some money, as in a bank. "Save your money, don't spend it." Whereas, for me, to save up money or to put away money or to stash away money means to accumulate money. Thus, one can save up some money by saving it rather than spending it. The ambiguity confounds the question, for me.
    – user6951
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 15:34
  • In Economics, what you saved is used to consume or to invest. @CarSmack
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 15:47

2 Answers 2


I do not think that #2 is ambiguous without context. It means the first thing that you suggested.

You could make that sentence mean the hypothetical situation that you mentioned, but that would require context. With no context, though, nobody would think it meant that.

The same is true of your sentence #3. Without context, it means simply that it is possible that when the year is over, you will have saved some money. You could add context, though, to change the meaning to your other interpretation.

  • Does #2 and #3 sound awkward to a native speaker?
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 9:05
  • #2 is not awkward. #3 is perhaps a bit awkward but not horrible.
    – Daniel
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 9:15
  • @ZhanlongZheng I find #3 a little awkward too as a native speaker. Although, if I say: "By the end of the year I could have saved some money." It feels a little better, but theres still something funny feeling about the way the tenses are mixed. "I could save some money by the end of the/this year" feels much more natural, I find. Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 16:24
  • The tenses are also mixed in "By the end of this year I might have saved some money." Why isn't that awkward? @EyeOfTheHawks
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 16:32
  • I'm not sure. It just doesnt feel as odd as 'could' does. I'd like to hear @Daniel take on this. Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 16:35

I strongly disagree with Daniel's answer.

No.2 is ambiguous. Of course context gets rid of ambiguity. That is the whole point. I agree that the two possible readings of expectation and hypothetical are both good here.
Maybe one is less common, but you can't just say that because one meaning is less obvious or wouldn't be used as much that it is not an an ambiguous sentence.
There is ambiguity because the sentence could be interpreted two ways, and to distinguish them you would need context. Modals are often ambiguous in this way, and the only way to clear these things up are context. If that sentence was taken out of context, you may think it means one thing and wouldn't think of the other... but if you were asked "is this ambiguous?" you should be able to see the possibility for ambiguity there and create a context in your head where a second meaning might arise. If this cannot be done, there is no ambiguity.

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