[Para 1:] In 1989, when the environment was briefly top of the UK national agenda, a group of Chinese planners came to London. Many of the people who met them wanted to know how the country had managed to get so many citizens to ride bicycles - something the British authorities were unable to do. The Chinese were perplexed. “You don’t understand”, said one.

♣ “In 20 years time, no more bicycles. All cars.” ♣ [I purposely spaced these sentences]

That prediction is being realised. Beijing’s roads, once kerb-to-kerb with bikes, are now choked with cars. In terms of traffic, noise and air pollution,

■ Shanghai could be Lagos or Cairo. ■

I still struggle with interpreting English modal verbs. Here, I'm trying to determine which phrase, either that between the clubs or squares, illustrates China’s actual growth in car usage. I had believed in ODO's Definition 1.1, thus regarded could as a hedge word, and finally picked square.

1.1. Used to indicate possibility

1. But club is the answer (not square). What did I misread? If the writer truly wanted the square to be a fact, why not use the more certain can? Is definition 1.1 the right match?

2. Also, doesn't 'that prediction is being realised' support clubs as the answer?

  • I don't fully understand your question, but the short answer to could is: because Shanghai is not Lagos or Cairo. You are not dealing with a fact. You're dealing with a counterfactual.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Oct 16, 2014 at 8:23
  • I tried to edit your question to enhance its clarify and visibility on the site, but I don't have sufficient reputation. In any case, what I was trying to say with my first comment, is the fundamental answer to your question about could vs can is Shanghai shares some characteristics with Cairo, with Lagos, specifically heavy car traffic and congestion, but it is not Cairo. Cairo is in Africa and has pyramids. Shanghai is in Asia and has no pyramids. Cairo has heavy traffic and Shanghai has heavy traffic, so if you squint, you might mistake one for the other, but Shanghai is not Cairo.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Oct 16, 2014 at 8:59
  • @DanBron: Thanks. Would you please post your suggested edit at meta.ell.stackexchange.com/q/1234/8712 for my viewing?
    – user8712
    Commented Oct 16, 2014 at 9:10
  • I had to discard my edits, so I've lost them. Sorry about that :(
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Oct 16, 2014 at 9:11
  • 1
    In re: comments vs an answer: I prefer to hang out in the comments, unless the question has a single, definitive, unambiguous answer (which isn't too onerous to find support for from external authorities). Your questions tend to require more interpretive, nuanced, responses, and comments provide a nice discursive format for that. Plus we get to see the full "audit trail" of how we arrived at consensus, which information is (a) kinda important for lit crit and (b) kinda hidden using the answer-editing mechanism.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Oct 16, 2014 at 9:22

1 Answer 1



We've had so much rain here lately, this could be India.

That is, in respect to the inordinate amount of rain we're having, we could be in a land that has monsoon season. It is as if we were in a monsoon.

Or let's say a news reporter visits New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina:

"There are people without food and water. This could be the Third World."

It is a kind of exclamation that involves a statement contrary to fact. A subjunctive use.

  • Thanks again. Sorry, I still don't understand my errors in questions 1 and 2. Will you please to respond in your answer, and not as a comment?
    – user8712
    Commented Oct 19, 2014 at 8:11
  • Would it be OK to use "might" instead without any change in meaning? We've had so much rain here lately, this might be India. "There are people without food and water. This might be the Third World." @TRomano
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 16:54
  • I won't say that I haven't heard might used as a replacement for could there, but I've heard could far more frequently. One does hear "this might as well be: "They used metal of such low quality in these screws, they might as well be made of plastic!"
    – TimR
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 20:01

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