3

We couldn't have finished the work ahead of time without your help.

Does the sentence make sense to you? Can "couldn't have done" be used in subjunctive mood?

7

Yes, the sentence makes perfect sense. It is quite conventional.

Strictly speaking, it's in the "conditional mood", not the "subjunctive mood", although grammatical distinctions like moods are rather sloppy in English and terminology is not well standardized. The reason it's conditional is because it depends on "without your help". "Without your help" describes the imaginary hypothesis; "we couldn't have…" describes the consequence of that hypothesis.

You could also just say that it's the "indicative mood", and couldn't is just the past tense of can't. Well, I said that moods are sloppy in English grammar.

I think that for purposes of learning English, the most important thing to know is that people choose the word could because the -ould words seem to mean a condition that results from something else that you're imagining. The same -ould words also suggest the past tense, which also fits this sentence. The terminology doesn't really matter.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Good summary. Grammatical accounts of English verbs suffer desperately from being pressed into the mold of Romance languages. – Colin McLarty Feb 2 '15 at 14:56
  • I don't really undertand why it doesn't follow the 3rd conditional structure (if + past perfect, would + have + past participle), what rule does it follow? Is it an exception? Thanks – silvia Jun 8 '17 at 10:05
  • @silvia I (native AmE) don't see it as an exception to anything. What rule would it break? – Ben Kovitz Jun 12 '17 at 14:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.