1. He started working hard much too late in the day — he couldn't possibly catch up.

My variants:

  1. He started working hard much too late in the day — he possibly couldn't catch up.
  2. He started working hard much too late in the day — he couldn't catch up.

I can understand (2) and (3) but I cannot understand (1) because when I begin translating "not possibly" (from "he could not possibly catch up") into my language I get something meaningless.
Could you help me please?

  • #1 means the same as #3, and #2 leaves some doubt. It was not possible to catch up. Aug 2, 2022 at 17:27
  • 2
    It was not possible for him to catch up. Aug 2, 2022 at 17:47
  • 4
    Don't attempt to "translate" not possibly. That's what's leading you to the totally non-idiomatic form in your example #2. The negation attaches to could not, as can easily be established simply by noting that #3 (which doesn't even include the word possibly) means essentially the same thing as #1. Note that possibly here is just an optional "intensifier" (effectively meaning under any conceivable circumstances). Aug 2, 2022 at 17:59
  • 1
    No, I don't agree. Please read what @FumbleFingers wrote about "not possibly". Aug 2, 2022 at 19:22
  • 2
    FF wrote Don't attempt to translate not possibly. Aug 2, 2022 at 19:47

2 Answers 2


Don't break up 'couldn't possibly' into could/not/possibly and then translate each word. Just consider that the 'can' verb is being emphasised.

When we follow the negative forms of the verb can/could with 'possibly' we are emphasising that we can (or could not) do something.

I can't possibly be there by midday! (I definitely can't be there by midday')

I couldn't possibly finish my homework last night, because my dog died.

This also applies to hypothetical uses of 'could':

I couldn't possibly go to the mayor's house, because he is a Nazi.

possibly adverb (WITH CAN/COULD)

used with "can" or "could" for emphasis:
He can't possibly have drunk all that on his own!
We did all that we possibly could to persuade her to come.

used in polite requests:
Could I possibly ask you to move your chair a little?

used when politely refusing offers:
"Have another chocolate." "No, really, I couldn't possibly."

Possibly (Cambridge Dictionary)


(1) means the same as (3).

There's a possible confusion here because of the different ways that "can/could" behave compared to "may/might". If you apply a negative to "may" or "might", it means "possibly not". But if you apply a negative to "can" or "could", it means "not possible". If you understand algebraic notation, this might help visualize it:

possibly not catch up:
may + (not catch up)
might + (not catch up)

not possible to catch up:
(cannot) + catch up
(could not) + catch up

The word order doesn't change. It's simply a property of the words "can" and "could" that negations apply to the modal verb, not the main verb, whereas with "may" and "might", negations apply to the main verb. This means word-for-word translations of sentences with "can/could" or "may/might" will necessarily result in failure.

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