Which of the following sentences makes more sense or is correct?

  1. Jack would have been here, but he had another place to go.

  2. Jack could have been here, but he had another place to go.

To me, both of them seems correct, which leads me to another question:-

Is there a clear distinction of the usage of "could have been" and "would have been". If there is then, kindly help or post a link to relevant article, please.

1 Answer 1


They are both correct, but they do not mean the same thing.

Jack would have been there...

If everything would have gone according to plan, Jack would indeed have been there. But something that Jack did not expect happened.

Jack could have been there...

It was (technically) possible for Jack to be there, but he decided to do something else.

The problem is that "he had another place to go" is a bit ambiguous. It can mean he had to go somewhere else, or it could mean he wanted to go somewhere else. You give both meanings by using would and could. (1) means he had to go somewhere else, (2) means that he wanted to go somewhere else.

Note that in practice, the actual difference in meaning is not very clear and many people will not (consciously) pick up on it. If you really want to make it clear that Jack decided not to come, or that he wanted to come, but he could not, you could make the sentences more clear:

Jack would have been there, but his father died and he had to attend the funeral.
Jack could have been there, but he preferred to spend the evening with his new girlfriend.

  • so does it hold true all the time? i.e. would have been refers to unexpected things and could have been refers to choices
    – Manish
    Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 7:39
  • @Manish Be careful when trying to make a fixed "rule" out of that. It's the idea that describes the use, but I am not looking forward to a question about a newspaper that uses would "and there is not really an unexpected thing, because anyone could have sen it happening!" or they use could and someone opening a question "but they didn't really have a choice!". Would means that there was the intention and expectation that something would happen, could indicates that there was a possibility. That freely translates to coincidence and choice.
    – oerkelens
    Commented Jul 8, 2015 at 8:34

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