I was reading this article and this line threw me off:

Losing to England is the best thing that could have happened to the Boks.

Bear in mind this sentence was spoken after the match was over.

It should be just "happened" instead of "could have happened". "Could have happened" suggests that it did not actually happen but it could have happened. Also, it should be 'was the best...' instead of 'is the best...'

So the correct sentence should be:

Losing to England was the best thing that happened to the Boks.

Am I correct?

  • The things that "could have happened" to England are all those possible, whether or not they actually did happen. The statement means that of all things possible, the thing that happened was the worst. With your change, the sentence would mean instead that the thing that happened was the worst among all those other things that actually did happen. Your change gives the sentence a different meaning from the original.
    – brainchild
    Nov 26, 2021 at 3:30

1 Answer 1


The sentence is correct and natural. But why?

Here it is rewritten with the same meaning:

Of all the results that were possible at the Boks' match on Saturday, losing to England is the best one.

You're right that "could have happened" is often used in unreal grammar, but it doesn't always mean unreal. Sometimes, like here, it literally means what "could have happened".

About "is" or "was". Either could be correct, with only slight nuance differences.

Losing to England was the best thing...

This means roughly, "losing to England on Saturday was the best possible outcome at the time".

Losing to England is the best thing...

This means roughly, "losing to England on Saturday puts us in the best possible situation right now."

  • But we can still avoid this 'could have happened' and just say '...was the best thing that "could" happen'. Is that possible with the same intended meaning? Nov 26, 2021 at 4:22
  • @English--moreexcthanlaws Sure, that's another way to phrase the same thing, but there's no reason to avoid "could have happened" as the meaning in context is clear
    – gotube
    Nov 26, 2021 at 6:07
  • Ok, after some pondering here's my two cents. This entire sentence has some idiosyncrasy attached to it as it combines both the unreal events that could have happened as well as one of the unreal events actually happened. So this sentence cannot be fully broken down using the standard grammar rules. Also, we can only use 'could have happened' and not 'could happen' because 'could have happened' is the only construction out of the two that can exhibit unreal event possibilities while 'could happen' would suggest real possibilities. Anywho, thanks for the answer. Nov 26, 2021 at 7:17

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