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Having spent a couple of weeks in a hopeless attempt to translate the poem (could anyone have expected that it would hide such a subtle subtext?), I gave up.

Can we use "could" instead of "could have"?

Having spent a couple of weeks in a hopeless attempt to translate the poem (could anyone expect that it would hide such a subtle subtext?), I gave up.

Will this sentence look strange due to this phrase, or are both variants more or less equal in meaning?

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  • My impression is "yes", because that clause is still true. Given the the writer gave up, presumably the subtext is still hidden, so maybe it could also be "could anyone expect that it hides such a subtle subtext?".
    – JavaLatte
    Apr 21, 2016 at 13:30
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    My feeling is that "could have" is slightly more accurate, because you would have expected it to be simpler before you knew the truth. But the second one reads fine too.
    – stangdon
    Apr 21, 2016 at 13:57

4 Answers 4

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Although both of your examples mean approximately the same thing, I agree with Stangdon's comment that

"My feeling is that 'could have' is slightly more accurate, because you would have expected it to be simpler before you knew the truth."

Since both examples are basically rhetorical questions,

(could anyone have expected that it would hide such a subtle subtext?)

makes more sense, because surely the author of the poem and a reader who is very familiar with his or her work would understand the hidden subtext, while

(could anyone expect that it would hide such a subtle subtext?)

suggests that no reader in the world would understand.

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The issue becomes clearer if we convert the parenthesized questions into statements:

  • could anyone have expected that it would hide such a subtle subtext? => Anyone could have expected that...
  • could anyone expect that it would hide such a subtle subtext? => Anyone could expect that...

The difference between "could" and "could have" was explained quite well in this answer. In a nutshell: "could" means "was capable", "could have" means "was (hypothetically) capable, but didn't".

Based on that, and the fact that the rhetorical question suggests that actually nobody could expect that, "could anyone have expected" is more suitable.

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Adding to Mark Hubbard's answer, I think the tense plays an important role here. We use "could have + past participle" in the subjunctive mood especially when we talk about possibilities in the past, e.g.:

If I had studied harder at college, I could have gotten a better job when I was 25.

You can't replace "could have gotten" with "could get" in the above example because it indicates the possibility in the past, not in the present or future.

However, could usually indicates a present or future aspect as in,

If I knew it, I could solve the problem now.

A: I am free tomorrow. B: Then, we could watch Star Wars.

As your example sentence is in the past tense with "gave" as a main verb, it would be more grammatical to use "could have + past participle".

The distinction is clearer if you contrast "You could have told me the truth" with "You could tell me the truth". The former clearly indicates and emphasizes the fact that the other party did not tell the truth in the past, however, the latter is not clear in terms of its meaning and tense.

Your example sentence emphasizes the fact that nobody could expect there would be such a subtle subtext hidden in the poem.

The same applies to "must" and "must have + past participle", "cannot" and "cannot have + past participle", "would" and "would have + past participle" and "might" and "might have + past participle", etc. The most important thing is the tense of the sentence.

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    Note that 'gotten' is an American / Canadian English word that is very rarely used in Standard British English (although you will find it in more colloquial speech). In Britain, 'got' is used instead. Apr 23, 2016 at 15:22
  • @Σωκράτης British English vs American English. BTW, I don't see the difference between your answer and mine.
    – user24743
    Apr 23, 2016 at 16:09
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As a native speaker, I think that, although both are perfectly understandable, the first sounds much more natural:

Having spent a couple of weeks in a hopeless attempt to translate the poem (could anyone have expected that it would hide such a subtle subtext?), I gave up.

Having thought about it a bit, I've come to the conclusion that this is because the main verb ('to give up') is in the past tense (perfect to be precise), so the verb in parentheses should also be in the past tense.

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