3

I know I could have done it much better but sometimes there are no second chances.
I have had many chances where I could have done something really cool but didn't do it because I was too scared.

This is the explanation I got:
The phrase "could have" is used to mean that somebody was capable of doing something, but he actually didn't do it.

Please read the below line:

The best thing I could have done was what I did
or
I did the best thing that I could have done

Here, I want to understand what is mean by "could have".
1. Does it mean the person was capable of doing it but actually didn't do it.
2. Does it mean the person was capable of doing it and actually did it.
3. Does it mean the person was capable of doing it but it doesn't matter whether he did it or he didn't do it.

I think the 3rd option is correct.

  • I think it might be helpful if you edit your post and provide some more context, like a source or a larger excerpt, if this this a sentence you found. I believe there are more than one ways to interpret your example. – Em. Aug 5 '16 at 9:30
  • If you change the order in the sentence, it becomes pretty clear. "I did the best thing that I could have done" can be shortened to "I did the best I could." So basically it could be 4. He did it and wasn't capable of doing any better. – MorganFR Aug 5 '16 at 9:31
3

The past irrealis could have done is not always a "counterfactual"—a thing which did not happen—it can be a "hypothetical", too, a thing which was possible but not yet done at the past time you're talking about.

In this case could have done appears in a relative clause modifying the best thing. It is legitimately cast as an irrealis because it refers implicitly not to the specific thing I did but to the range of hypothetical options which lay before me at that time.

Of all the things which I could have done, the best was the thing I actually did.

1

Ditto StoneyB's answer. I'd like to offer another possible way to wrap your head around this. It's to skip the rules and jump right to the meaning, and know the difference between the "face value" of the meaning (i.e., what does the sentence mean when you read it literally?) and the implicature (i.e., the real intended meaning).

These paraphrases should help:

I know I could have done better.
= Face value: I know it was possible for me to do better.
= Implicature: I didn't do it good enough.

I could have climbed that building.
= Face value: It was possible for me to climb that building.
= Implicature: I didn't climb it.

The best thing I could have done was what I did.
= Face value: The best thing that was possible for me to do was what I did.
= Implicature: I did what I did and it was the best possible thing (I could've done).

Hope this helps.

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