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Let's take a hypothetical sentence pronounced by a hypothetical person who speaks, say, of events that are more than 100 years in the past:

"The civil war period was very violent. In those days, you could have been killed for any trifle."

Would this sentence be grammatical and logical if both the speaker and the listener were born after the civil war in question, meaning there was not a chance for any of them to witness those days?

I've looked up Google, and "those days you could have been" turned out to be a rare combination for some reason.

But "In those days you could be killed" is possibly wrong when talking of the past.

I'm trying to proofread an English-language post written by a Russian-speaking person and untangle the grammar behind some of the structures. His sentence runs like this:

There was very dangerous at that times because you would be looted, taken a beating and even gone home in a box...

I'd come up with this "could have been" instead of his "you would be looted, beaten.." but then had second thoughts. Maybe "could be" is proper. Or should one use "you were likely to be looted"?

Here's one sentence I've found at Google Books:

As I stated before, in those days, you could be an Instructor as a Private Pilot, but there was not much of a practical use for having one because you couldn't charge for your services.

It seems that could be works fine as the past form of can. But will it work in:

As I stated before, in those days, you could be killed easily.

  • Which country's "civil war period" is being discussed? – Jasper Nov 2 '14 at 15:00
  • @Jasper: It's just a hypothetical sentence; I've added some context. – CowperKettle Nov 2 '14 at 15:10
  • This is a great question which covers the hypothetical (but not counterfactual) use of 'could have' – Kinzle B Apr 22 '18 at 5:17
10

Compare the following sentences:

Present time

  1. It's very dangerous in Metropolis right now. You can be beaten up for just looking at someone the wrong way.
  2. It's very dangerous in Metropolis right now. You could be beaten up for just looking at someone the wrong way.

Sentence (1) presents being beaten up as a live possibility, as something that does actually happen to people. Notice that we can analyse for just looking at someone the wrong way, as some kind of condition:

1'. You can be beaten up if you just look at someone the wrong way.

Sentence (2) presents being beaten up as a hypothetical outcome of the wrong look. It is not being presented in the same way as in (1). It doesn't necessarily say that people are being beaten up for looking at people the wrong way - although we might assume that they are.

Could in sentence (2), as already mentioned, represents this outcome as a hypothetical possibility, as opposed to a live one. We could rephrase it as the following hypothetical conditional:

2'. You could be beaten up if you just look(ed) at someone the wrong way.

Remember both of these sentences refer to the present or future time. The way that we interpret you here is quite likely to affect our interpretation of the sentence. It's also quite likely to affect our choice of can or could. If you means a person in general, we are more likely to use can. If you is being used to make the listener imagine themselves in that situation, then we are more likely to use the hypothetical could.

Past time

Let's move forward twenty years. Now if we wish to make the same kind of statement but about Metropolis twenty years ago instead of now, we need to shift the tenses back to indicate past time. Example (1) would now be as in (3):

  1. It was very dangerous in Metropolis in those days. You could be beaten up for just looking at someone the wrong way.

Here we see could appearing as the past form of can. This past form of can still implies that people actually were being beaten up for looking at people the wrong way. It is being presented as a live possibility for people at the time. It has exactly the same meaning as can, but refers to a past time. It does not represent hypotheticality.

However, in sentence (2) we already have past tense could, where the past tense indicates hypotheticality. If we wish to keep this hypothetical flavour, but also indicate past time, then we need to shift the tense back further. We need to use a past perfect form as in (4):

  1. It was very dangerous in Metropolis in those days. You could have been beaten up for just looking at someone the wrong way.

Sentences (3) and (4) could be construed as the conditionals:

3'. You could be beaten up if you just looked at someone the wrong way.

4'. You could have been beaten up if you ('d) just looked at someone the wrong way.

So if we see a past perfect form could have this most likely represents past time reference plus hypotheticality.

Hope this helps!

  • 3
    Excellent! But I invite you to consider whether there isn't a third dimension here -- present-referent could employed with such attenuated 'hypotheticality' that it is virtually identical with some senses of can. (Our wondrously persistent user Kinzle B offers some examples here.) It is my impression that in such cases the past-tensed form remains could, while the 'perfect' could have VERBen is mostly reserved for 'strong' hypotheticals - mostly counterfactuals. – StoneyB Nov 2 '14 at 23:28
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    Thank you, Araucaria! So "in those days, you could have been" works even if the person spoken to wasn't present in those days. So Leo's answer is a bit off the mark. What is the difference between (3) and (4)? Is it that (4) implies that people were very aware of this danger and it was very unlikely for anyone to be careless enough to look at someone the wrong way? – CowperKettle Nov 3 '14 at 5:06
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    @CopperKettle No, I don't think so. You might have noticed that I didn't use temrs like 'modal remoteness' or probability and counterfactuality in my post. I use the term hypotheticality. 'Hypothetical' here means considered as a theoretical situation. Notice that if a situation is impossible, you have to consider it theoretically. But just because you consider something theoretically, it does not mean that the situation doesn't, wont, or hasn't existed. For example, If we offered you the job, what changes would you make to X? doesn't mean that they won't give you the job! ... – Araucaria Nov 3 '14 at 10:01
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    @CopperKettle I don't think that 'one' excludes that reading (one is a very odd pronoun). But even if it is generic you that's used, the idea could still be presented as a theoretical situation. It is always true of could have been that the situation is considered theoretically as opposed to factually - even if we are considering something that did actually happen. – Araucaria Nov 3 '14 at 10:57
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    @KinzleB Sometimes "I could swim" = "I can swim" with respect to 'modality'; both may express the same confidence in your present ability to swim. But in these cases, can will be used to express your general present competence and implicates your having swum before, while could will usually be used with respect to a specific situation which has not yet arisen or is still 'open' to your swimming. In other cases, of course, could may express past reference or social tentativeness or some uncertain condition. – StoneyB Nov 3 '14 at 14:02
6

There are two situations here:   A. Hypothetical     B. Reality

In hypothetical situations, you do not exist or you did not exist. Like in your example, the person to whom you are speaking to was not there in the civil war times - So your sentence

"In those days you could be killed" is actually correct.

'Could have been' is only used in 'Real situations.' For example:

  1. He got away from burning car before it exploded.

Here we can say: He was lucky to have gotten away from that burning car in time. He could have been killed. (Here 'could be' can't be used)

Another example : Suppose I say

  1. I could be a pilot in world war two.

This means that 'i was not there in world war two, because it's a hypothetical situation. But

  1. I could have been a pilot in world war two.

means that i was there in world war two, (maybe as a soldier) but i did not get a chance to become a pilot.

Note - the use of 'could have been' here makes it a real situation and it's no longer a hypothetical situation. So to sum it up:

  1. If you are making a hypothetical statement then use 'could be'
  2. If you are making a reality statement then use 'could have been.'
  • 1
    Thank you, Leo! I get it: "could have been" refers to a real but unrealized possibility. "Could be killed" refers either to the past or to the present/future possibility", moreover, could be used to refer to unreal possibility ("If you lived then you could be killed") and that makes it hard sometimes. – CowperKettle Nov 2 '14 at 17:18
  • @Araucaria: Oh. You could rewrite your answer then, that would be great! A chance for me to untangle this part of the conditionals tangle. – CowperKettle Nov 2 '14 at 17:34
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    @leo, Copper Kettle, That's a very different usage of could have been. That represents backshifting of could for a hypothetical possibility. The problem with could be in that situation is that counterfactual/hypothetical could indicates future not past time. This is quite different to CopperKettle's example! Sorry Cooperkettle, Leo : that last comment was posted before it was finished and edited! :) – Araucaria Nov 2 '14 at 17:36
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    I disagree with your answer. "Had I been alive during WWII, I could have been a pilot" is a perfectly correct sentence dealing with a hypothetical situation. – Doc Nov 3 '14 at 6:05
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    @Doc I wont disagree with the answer, as I have very little knowledge regarding this matter. But one thing is for sure, like you I also find the sentence (the one your wrote in your comment) quite acceptable and believe this way the sentence correctly expresses a hypothetical situation. Anyone please correct me with proper explanation if I am wrong. Thanking you. – Man_From_India Nov 3 '14 at 7:49
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CORRECT: Back then, you (or one) could be killed for any trifle.

There was very dangerous at that times because you would be looted, taken a beating and even gone home in a box...

It was very dangerous in those times; you could be robbed, beaten, or even sent home in a box.

"could have been killed" would mean that, at some point in the past, a situation arose where the danger was great enough to result in death, but death did not occur.

Why did you jaywalk across the busy street at rush hour? You could have been killed!

Twenty years ago, there was no pedestrian crossing or traffic signal at this busy location. You could be killed trying to cross the street.

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