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-Why didn't you help him?

a-How could I help him? I was injured and I couldn't move.

b-How could I have helped him? I was injured and I couldn't move.

I think both (a) and (b) are acceptable and basically mean the same in this context.

Would you agree with that assessment?

Do you see any difference between the two?

1 Answer 1

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So there are three points I would make about this:

  1. As you probably know, there is a difference as there are different grammatical tenses at play here. Nonetheless, I looked it up to be sure that it isn't already explained by the grammatical difference. In sentence a, "could" is the simple past tense of the verb "can" and "help" is simple present. In sentence b, "have helped" is present perfect. The Britannica Dictionary states:

"Use the simple past when the action started in the past, finished in the past, and is not continuing now. Use the present perfect when the action started in the past and is continuing now. The simple past tells us that an action happened at a certain time in the past, and is not continuing anymore."

Technically there must be a difference between a and b.

  1. According to the User Khan, who has a reputation score of about 27k,

The word 'could' is the past tense of 'can'. It's used to mean that somebody was able to do something in the past. So the former sentence means that he was able to climb the mountain. The phrase "could have" is used to mean that somebody was capable of doing something, but he actually didn't do it. So the latter sentence means that he was capable of climbing the mountain, but he actually didn't do so.

So this makes me think that there is a slight difference in meaning even in your example. Although I am not sure how this explanation translates to your case.

  1. Altogether, I suspect the difference in meaning to be like this:

a is a real and not a rhetorical question. So you are really asking in what way you could have helped even though you were injured. I think the present form of the same sentence indicates that: "How can I help him? I am injured and I can't move."

b is a rhetorical question. The main reason for this assessment is that b is not coherent. This is my main point and my biggest issue with these sentences. The logical form of b would be
"How could I have helped him? I was injured and I couldn't have moved."
This indicates that helping requires moving. It sounds more like the person is saying that help was impossible because they could not move.

tl;dr I think there is a slight difference in meaning, depending on whether the person answering is denying that help was possible or if they really want to hear an answer.

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