2

I couldn't tell if he was annoyed or tired.

I couldn't have told if he was annoyed or tired.

What is the difference between these two?


Let me guess, that the sentences are not conditional, for I can substitute if with whether.

The first sentence expresses that I coundn't tell it for some period of time. For example, during our time in college, I did not have the ability to distinguish whether he was annoyed or tired.

The second sentence tells us about one particular time, for example, when he got home two days ago, I coundn't tell if he was annoyed or tired.

  • "Before I had the Lasix surgery, I couldn't have told whether he was annoyed or tired when his eyes were crossed." Does that work as a sentence? :) – BobRodes Apr 12 '14 at 14:00
  • @BobRodes Can I use just 'couldn't tell' in your sentence? – Graduate Apr 12 '14 at 14:25
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First let me correct your "weather" to "whether". Then let me say that whether is correct here, and if is not. If addresses one condition which is either true or false; whether addresses two conditions, one of which is true and the other false. Therefore you are correct that if implies a conditional situation and whether does not—the existence of two conditions is unconditional.

That said, the first sentence is not conditional and the second one is; that's the difference. To clarify this, let's rephrase them a bit more formally:

I wasn't able to tell whether he was annoyed or tired.

I wouldn't have been able to tell whether he was annoyed or tired.

The first sentence says you tried to tell and couldn't, the second says that you expected that if you tried to tell you wouldn't be able to.

  • 2
    At least in informal usage, if is perfectly fine to express an either/or condition. See here, for example – Martha Jul 1 '13 at 0:35
  • Well, yes, perhaps I'm being a bit pedantic to say that it's incorrect. – BobRodes Jul 1 '13 at 2:06
  • Can you explain in more detail what you were trying to tell in this line "the second says that you expected that if you tried to tell you wouldn't be able to." – Graduate Jul 1 '13 at 2:54
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    The first sentence means that I attempted to determine whether he was annoyed or tired, and failed. The second sentence means that I did not make the attempt, but if I had I would have failed. Does that clarify? – BobRodes Jul 1 '13 at 3:06
  • You didn't answer OP's The second sentence tells us about one particular time, for example, when he got home two days ago, I couldn't tell if he was annoyed or tired. I would think it's not unlikely in some cases. What do you think? @BobRodes – Kinzle B Apr 12 '14 at 6:10

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