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for example:

This is something they could never see in the wild.

is it about the past or the future?

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    The cited usage is "timeless" (it applies to the Past, Present, and Future). For Past only, it's something they could never have seen in the wild. For Future only, the best you can do is something they will never be able to see in the wild. Dec 12, 2023 at 15:36
  • @FumbleFingers, about 'could never have seen' doesn't that mean 'have an opportunity in the past but not realize it'?
    – Armen
    Dec 12, 2023 at 15:46
  • @FumbleFingers 'timeless'? it is something new for me. In my language, you have no opportunity to talk about something meaning 'past/present/feature' at the same time. Is it something unique?
    – Armen
    Dec 12, 2023 at 16:00
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    @Armen It's not so much that it's "past/present/future at once," but more that it's none of them. When we talk about hypotheticals, we're imagining a different, possible existence. We can have a hypothetical past ("The battle could have gone differently") or future ("You could go to university"), but since we're talking about ideas, we could separate it from time: "Anyone could understand this book [if they were to read it]." Dec 12, 2023 at 16:32
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    (LOL I just did it without even thinking, "we could separate it from time") Dec 12, 2023 at 16:32

2 Answers 2

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is it about the past or the future?

Time reference and tense are not the same thing. If I say: "it is going to rain tomorrow," I am using a present tense form to refer to a future event. Additionally, different parts of a sentence can have different time references, and each verb form can have its own tense.

This is something they could never see in the wild.

The words "is," "something," "could," and "see" each can have a different time references, which makes it hard to know for certain what time you are asking about when you say: "is it about the past or the future?"

If your question is specifically about the tense and time reference of "could," I can give the following answer.

"Could" serves as both the simple past and present conditional tense of "can." To tease out this difference, you can often replace the simple past use with "was able to" and the conditional use with "would be able to." Let's do that with posted sentence you questioned.

  1. This is something they were never able to see in the wild.

The words "were never able to" refer to a past stretch of time when something failed to occur. This is the meaning of the posted sentence if you understand "could" to be in the simple past tense.

  1. This is something they would never be able to see in the wild.

The words "would never be able to" refer to a hypothetical future situation. The sentence is probably a shorter version of "This is something they would never be able to see in the wild if they tried to." This is the meaning of the posted sentence if you understand "could" to be in the present conditional tense.

Out of context, it is theoretically ambiguous whether "could" is simple past tense or present conditional tense. Because of this ambiguity, there is a tendency to replace "could" with the appropriate form of "to be able to."

In context, if there were already a reference to "their" presence in the wild during the past that was part of the discourse, you would take "could" to be past simple tense. In the absence of such a past reference, you would take "could" as the present conditional tense, particularly because the present tense reference of "is" suggests by default that the following statement is also present tense of some sort.

For example:

The anthropologists returning from the expedition were amazed to read today's reports of the chimpanzee using sign language to communicate with its child. This is something (they said) they could never see in the wild (despite multiple attempts).

Here "could" is simple past tense.

The anthropologists are skeptical that the recent reports of sign language usage describe natural behavior. (According to them,) this is something they could never see in the wild (if they tried to look for it some time in the future).

Here "could" is present conditional tense.

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  • thanks for a detailed answer.
    – Armen
    Dec 14, 2023 at 21:36
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It could refer to the past - they were never able to see - but in this particular context it's probably hypothetical - they would not be able to see [it] (if they were out in the wild now or in the future).

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