If I want to say this sentence using could have plus past participle, then how should I say that?

You were capable of not going there, but you went.

Is it correct to say:

You could have not gone there.

PS: I know that if I want to say that you were capable of going there, but you didn't go there, I can say:

You could have gone there.

2 Answers 2


Consider this potentially tricky dialogue:

“I went to the picnic yesterday.”

“You didn’t! How could you have done that? You really shouldn’t’ve!”

“What do you mean by shouldn’t’ve?”

“I mean you should have not gone.”

“Impossible! I could not have not gone.”

The issue is that “to go” and “to be able” can both experience negation, either separately or together.

  1. I was able to go.
  2. I was able to not go.
  3. I was not able to go.
  4. I was not able to not go.

I am using the simpler to go for to have gone, and to be able for can/could to simplify things. The corresponding versions are:

  1. I could have gone.
  2. I could have not gone.
  3. I could not have gone.
  4. I could not have not gone.
  • @J008 Yes, I sometimes do — when it is actually appropriate, which is admittedly not especially common. The point is that there is more than one piece in the verb phrase that one can negate, and it is even possible to negate both of them at the same time for added meaning. Both could have and gone can be negated: “could not have gone” and “could have not gone” mean different things, and *“could not have not gone" means something else again. Does that make sense, or have I only confused you? I will try harder if so.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 19:04

1: I could have not answered this question, but...

Both OP's example and mine are completely grammatical, but it's worth pointing out that even native speakers (especially when not paying close attention) could be liable to misparse mine as...

2: I could not have answered
3: I couldn't have answered

...because "could not have" is far more common than "could have not". enter image description here

In my specific example there's a clear semantic distinction between my first version (It would have been possible for me not to answer) and the more common forms meaning It would not have been possible for me to answer.

That same ambiguity potentially exists in the present tense form...

4: I can not answer

But in practice that version would carry the strong implication not answering is an option available to me, because if the intended sense was I am not able to answer it would probably be written as...

5: I cannot answer
6: I can't answer

In speech, the less common sense could be conveyed by stressing either can or not (if only one of the two words is stressed, it steers the audience away from the one-word cannot version).

Another common way to steer the audience away from an unwanted misparsing is...

7: I could simply not have answered
8: I could have just not answered

...where introducing another word between could and not again steers the reader/audience towards the intended sense.

  • You have not answered the request to show her how to make a double negative out of this. I think you should not have not answered. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 18:20
  • 1
    @J008 "Just" is often used as a "filler" word in that situation. "You could have just not gone there" (i.e. it was possible for you to go, and you did go, but you should not have gone) or "You just couldn't have gone there" (i.e. it was impossible for you to go, even if you wanted to go).
    – alephzero
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 23:36
  • 1
    @tchrist: As you presumably anticipated, I can't not respond to your comment. But I would just say that OP's only reference to "double negative" is the bracketed (double) in the title itself (with no further mention in the actual question text). And I think for most learners (probably including OP) there are quite enough issues to take on board here without even bothering with that aspect (which at the end of the day is relatively trivial). The really important bit (which neither of us have covered that well) is when does not modify what comes before, rather than after? Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 18:20

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