The sentence is the following:

Could we have found a buyer who would continue operations, I would have certainly preferred to sell the business rather than liquidate it.

I can guess the meaning of could we have as if we could have.

Is it grammatically correct to use Could at the beginning of a non-question sentence?
Does it mean if one could?

  • 7
    Maybe change to "Had we found a buyer who could continue operations..."?
    – iwarv
    Commented Jun 17 at 10:05
  • 2
    It's certainly possible with e.g. "should we have" but I can't find any examples with "could we have". My intuition is that "could we" sounds too much like a question/request so it could be confusing. "Were we able to" is another possibility.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 17 at 10:09
  • 10
    Yes, that is an alternate form of conditional statement that doesn't rely on if. But starting a sentence with a modal verb in that manner is rather old-fashioned.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 17 at 10:51
  • 1
    @StuartF - Should Hilarion disappear, we will hang you, never fear! I had to sing that in our school production of Princess Ida. Commented Jun 17 at 11:03
  • @iwarv That changes the meaning of the sentence. "If we could have found" is not the same as "If we had found". The first discusses the possibility of finding; the second discusses actually finding. Commented Jun 18 at 18:06

4 Answers 4


[Tried to answer this question when it was posted on English Language and Usage but the question was locked there even as I was editing the quotation, and subsequently migrated here. Rather than waste the time I spent finding an example that shows clearly the style of writing where this construction was used, I'm replying here on ELL.]

Yes, that is an alternate form of conditional statement that doesn't rely on if. But starting a conditional sentence with a modal verb in that manner is rather old-fashioned, as this example shows:

We did not then know that this movement was but the opening of the siege of Port Hudson, in which the One Hundred and Sixteenth was destined to play as important a part as the men we envied, and that while Emory's Division could inscribe on their battle flags "Fort Bisland," and Grover's Division "Irish Bend," Augur's Division would soon be enabled to inscribe on theirs "Plain Store." Could we have foreseen it, we should have been better contented with our seemingly unfortunate lot. [my emphasis]

The One Hundred and Sixteenth Regiment of New York State Volunteers: Being a Complete History of Its Organization and of Its Nearly Three Years of Active Service in the Great Rebellion. To which is Appended Memorial Sketches and a Muster Roll of the Regiment, Containing the Name of Every Man Connected with it By Orton S. Clark, 1868

P.S. "Had we known at the time..." or "Had we been able to foresee..." are still in mainstream use in the 21st century.


Raymott, on UsingEnglish.com, correctly states:

  • "Could he but reach town in time, he could prevent the disaster." [Old-fashioned usage].


  • "If he could only reach town in time, he could prevent the disaster."

It is a grammatical conditional form, but as per the caveat, rare nowadays (the more so without 'but'). Archaic/literary, so best avoided in normal dialogue.

A more famous author has:

O could he but have drawn his wit

As well in brass, as he has hit

His face; the print would then surpass

All that was ever writ in brass.

[Ben Jonson {d 1637}: 'On the Portrait of Shakespeare']

See also Araucaria's answer here for a more complete overview.


English is a Germanic language but has been much more influenced by Romance languages than most other Germanic languages. As a native German speaker, I can tell you that such conditionals make sentences look more Germanic. Others say it feels old-fashioned, I can’t judge that. So, if a character in a story says something like that, if that character learned English only later in life and is a native German speaker, unbeknownst to the reader at this point, such sentences are great subtle hints. I can see myself saying such sentences as this is one of many, many ways to express conditionals in German and it’s not invalid in English.

  • @Bolpat: Would you consider a sentence beginning with a modal verb used conditionally just as "contemporary" in style as a conditional sentence beginning with Hätten wir...
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 18 at 16:26
  • 2
    @wjandrea, English is a Germanic language, but has been much more influenced by Romance languages than most other Germanic languages. So, with word choice (obviously) and also some other aspects such phrasing, an English can lean more into a Germanic or Romance direction. Usually, but not always, the Germanic one is old-fashioned.
    – Bolpat
    Commented Jun 18 at 16:29
  • 1
    @TimR, Hätten wir… and “Had we …” are not not just the same style, they’re literal translations of each other. In German, the present conditional cannot be literally translated to English, for example: Ist er groß, kommt er ran. As I see it, you can’t make that “Is he tall, he can reach it”, but you need a conditional: “If he’s tall, he can reach it.” You can’t use “Were he tall, …” because that’s irrealis, and correspond to wäre in German. Modal-verb-initial English sentences are valid and contemporary in polite and formal speech.
    – Bolpat
    Commented Jun 18 at 16:35
  • I know, but that's not what I'm asking you. I'm asking about beginning with a modal conditional vs Hätten wir... How would you translate "Could we have foreseen..." starting with a modal?
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 18 at 16:56
  • 1
    No one has said that it's "invalid", just old-fashioned. If you're going to claim that it's "contemporary in polite and formal speech", you'll need to back that up with attestations.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 18 at 17:15

It's good English, no changes are needed.

  • 2
    Couldn't agree with you more. Commented Jun 18 at 11:18
  • 5
    It may be good English, but it is old fashioned. It is more idiomatic to use "Had we" rather than "Could we have" these days
    – No Name
    Commented Jun 18 at 15:21
  • It's would not could, you whippersnappers : What does 'would that I had' mean?
    – Mazura
    Commented Jun 19 at 6:02
  • Could that all answers on this site were so wondrous.
    – Fattie
    Commented Jun 19 at 12:10
  • 1
    It's the first time I've ever heard or seen that construction used, and I'm a native speaker in my fifties. I'm not confident that anyone born this century would recognize it. Commented Jun 20 at 3:40

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