2

Source: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/tinderbox-in-in-the-himalayas/article8548784.ece

Please look at the following

The decision to deploy a few Air Force helicopters could not have achieved much, since a couple of thousand hectares had to be covered. Fortunately, incidents of fresh fires now seem to be on the decline.

Please tell me what is the difference between

a) The decision to deploy a few Air Force helicopters could not have achieved much .

b) The decision to deploy a few Air Force helicopters could not achieve much.

Here b) is used in the sense of the ability in the past.

When do I use a) and b) ? Please tell me the difference, if minor, between them.

  • 1
    could have + past participle shows past possibility. This means that you didn't do the action that was meant to be done, but you did another. – Alejandro May 3 '16 at 17:35
  • StoneyB will you honor me by giving your opinion on this question, please? – Policewala May 4 '16 at 1:28
1

Can

"Could" is the past tense of "can", so let's start with "can".

"Can" has a number of meanings (see M-W). It can indicate possibility:

Do you think he can still be alive?

It can also refer to ability:

He can lift 200 pounds.

Could Present

"Could" has similar meanings but the time frame it refers to can complicate things. If you are referring to possibility, that's the same in the present:

He could still be alive.

Using "could" for the present perhaps adds a nuance. "He can still be alive" is sort of a yes/no statement--either he is or he isn't. "He could still be alive" implies that his status depends on conditions.

If you are talking about present ability, "can" is definitive:

He can lift 200 pounds.

This means that he definitely is able to do it. "Could" is conditional; there's an "if" or a "when" or other conditional term that modifies or limits the statement of ability. For example:

He could lift 200 pounds if he recovers from his injury.

Take the example in the question:

...a few Air Force helicopters could [not] achieve much

Without the surrounding context, this might have potentially referred to the present or future. In that case, the meaning might be referring to either possibility or conditional ability, depending on the context.

Could Past

The potential meanings of "could" change when referring to the past. The action has already happened, so whatever possibilities there were have already played out; they are no longer possibilities but a specific reality.

He could lift 200 pounds.

This means he definitely was able to do it in the past.

Returning to the example in the question:

...a few Air Force helicopters could [not] achieve much

As a past reference, this refers to what actually happened. The helicopters did (or didn't) achieve much.

Could have

"Could have" (done something) is used for saying that something was possible in the past, even though it did not happen. (Macmillan} Example:

You could have been killed.

If it had actually happened, you would use did, were, or a similar "actually-happened-in-the-past" word. Could have refers to a prior possibility whose time has passed.

Since could have means that it did not, could not have might seem like a double negative (what, exactly, is being negated by the "not"?). Here's why that isn't the case. The "could" portion refers to what was possible (or an ability). The "have" portion refers to completed action (the perfect; see M-W). Modifying "could" with "have" is what says that the "could" did not happen.

So could not have still refers to something that did not happen, but the referred-to action was a "negative" possibility; i.e., lacked the ability to happen (and the "have" means sure enough, it did not).

The example in the question:

...a few Air Force helicopters could not have achieved much

This refers to something that did not happen and (or because) it lacked the ability.

0

Use A when the action did not happen. Using your example, "The decision to deploy a few Air Force helicopters could not have achieved much" would be used if the decision was never actually carried out, meaning the Air Force helicopters were deployed, and you are only speculating as to what effect the decision could have had.

Use B when the action did happen. Using your example, "The decision to deploy a few Air Force helicopters could not achieve much" would be used if the decision was carried out, but to little avail.

  • 1
    Why would you use "The decision could not achieve much" instead of "The decision did not achieve much"? I would say "I could not achieve much with my mother incessantly nagging me, but here is what I did manage to get done." If it was just in the past, I would say "I did not achieve much because my mother was nagging me." – ColleenV parted ways Jun 9 '16 at 20:06
  • That wasn't the question - the question was when to use "could not have __" over "could not __" and vice versa. – Tanner Fix-It Smith Jun 10 '16 at 1:56
  • I'm asking you to further explain your answer, because I don't think b) is something most fluent speakers would write about a past action that happened. We would write "the decision did not achieve much". – ColleenV parted ways Jun 10 '16 at 11:39

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.