1

I have seen both following structures for criticizing people for not doing something; but do they really mean the same; if yes, which one is more common among AmE speakers?

    • You could help me – why did you just sit and watch?
    • You could have helped me – why did you just sit and watch?

    • You could tell me you were getting married.
    • You could have told me you were getting married.
  • 3
    I believe only the second of each pair is commonly used. – user3169 Oct 20 '14 at 1:30
1

They do not mean the same thing, no. In your example #2,

You could tell me you were getting married.

is a suggestion for what they could do sometime in the future, while

You could have told me you were getting married.

is a suggestion for what they could have done in the past.

This means that in example #1, where you clearly are talking about the past, you probably should use your second sentence.

  • 1
    Are you sure? Does 'You could tell me you were getting married.' have a connotation of the future?! – A-friend Oct 20 '14 at 1:55
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    You could tell me you were getting married is in the present tense, which by default really is a future (as the person being told to do something cannot do so instantly) although I would say it's basically present tense. It's certainly not past tense. Could have told is past tense and criticizing the fact that he did not. – Joe Oct 20 '14 at 2:35
  • @A-friend OK, I think I see where you're coming from — you're trying to use "could" to mean "were able to". I think that works in some contexts but would not be understood that way in the sentence you wrote. – Dan Getz Oct 20 '14 at 19:50
1

I agree with @user3169: only the second sentence of each example is correct. The tense progression in the first of each pair makes no sense. I suggest revising them as follows:

  1. You could help me – why are you just sitting and watching?
    You could have helped me – why did you just sit and watch?
  2. If you are getting married, you should tell me!
    You could have told me you were getting married.
0

As far as the second sentences under 1 and 2 are concerned, there is no difference of opinion that they are indicative of some sort of criticism or annoyance.

As for the first sentences under 1 and 2, I think the first one under 1 expressed some some kind of criticism because of the use of adverb "just" (meaning simply) before the verbs sit and watch. However, the other first sentence under 2 is not at all expressive of any criticism or anger. However, if we say that "you could just or at least tell me you were getting married", it will serve the purpose.

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