Novak on TV: Alex, I don't know if you can hear me. But tonight, you uncovered a nest of vipers inside the Detroit Police Department. And in so doing, you shed light on an invaluable truth. Even the police, the men and women who swore to keep us safe, they can be bribed. They can be bought. Machines, however, are corruption free. Americans could be living in a country where law enforcement is not only efficient, but incorruptible. Thank you, Alex, for all you've done. And for all that you are.

-- Robocop 2014

These are the lines uttered by Novak on TV. I wonder why could be living is used rather than could live. Any nuances suggested? Is be living the present tense embedded in the modal construction?


You've pretty much spotted the meaning: it enforces a present time reference.

Could implicates that the eventuality named in the subsequent lexical verb has not happened at the current RT (Reference Time, the time you are talking about); consequently, whatever possibility the speaker has in mind for that eventuality being 'actualized' has to lie at some point after RT.

In this case, the author uses could with present reference (RT = now), the past-tense form signifying diminished probability. The implication, therefore, is that the possibility of living in a country where law enforcement is efficient and incorruptible lies somewhere in the future. The author, however, wants to depict this possibility as immediate, something which can be achieved now, and to effect this interpretation casts the verb live in the progressive, which 'cancels' the future implication: it is possible for this to be happening at the very time you read this.

Implicate in this sort of context is a technical term signifying that what is implied is not necessarily the case: an implication is a 'default' interpretation which can be 'cancelled' with further information.

  • But couldn't could be living just as easily refer to a future point in time? Oct 19 '14 at 19:58
  • @Araucaria It could; and the 'present' sense is of course cancellable by an explicit or contextually implicit future reference; but somehow this sort of context imports a present rhetorical sense, as if the implicit protasis were a past counterfactual ("If only you'd done such-and-such you could be ..."). Think of the billboards: "You could be home by now". Oct 19 '14 at 20:22
  • @StoneyB What's the cultural reference for the billboard you mentioned?
    – Kinzle B
    Apr 21 '18 at 18:19
  • @KinzleB This is often seen near new US housing developments along highways travelled by commuters -- "If you lived here you wouldn't have to drive any farther!" Apr 21 '18 at 22:26

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