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This is a line from a fiction in which a killer says to the good guy

For what it's worth I had hoped we could have avoided this day".

I mean why not say "For what it's worth I had hoped we could avoid this day"?

Please note that I know the general grammar rules about could and could have but this one seems to be strange.

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3 Answers 3

I mean why not say "For what it's worth I had hoped we could avoid this day"?

Because they chose not to.

The meaning of the original and your suggestion is pretty much identical.

So too would be, "I hoped we could avoid this".

Could have does put the focus more on the meaning "something that was possible, but which did not happen".

However could while not having that meaning so strongly, implies it in this phrase so much as to be synonymous: It's possible to say something like "I could avoid this day, so I made sure I did", but here there's no ambiguity, so they're both equally valid choices.

And we have equally valid choices all the time. We have "To be or not to be" vs "Maybe I should just top myself", through to much less extreme differences.

We have our own natural styles that lead us to one decision or another. It may be that this author is more likely to favour "I had hoped we could have avoided". over "I had hoped we could avoid" as part of their natural style.

We also push our styles in different directions to use different voices in different registers and contexts. This is even more so when we are writing dialogue. It could be that the author would never say something like "I had hoped we could have avoided", but they are picturing the character as someone who does. The rest of the phrase is wordier than necessary to convey the bare meaning in other ways, so the choice here is of a part with those other stylistic choices.

It would seem to be at a point where the killer is explaining themselves, and no doubt about to attempt some violence upon another character. This is a reason for a writer to draw out speech both to show hesitation and woolgathering on the part of the character, and to keep the reader at this point of suspense a bit longer. Therefore even if the character is one who would normally just say "I hoped we could avoid this", it could be an attempt to benefit both the sense of the character's current mental state, and the pacing of the story, to favour the longer form.

And that's all assuming the best on the part of the author. Maybe they just sat down and typed!

I'm inclined to suspect it was at least semi-deliberate though, since it's a bit of a cliché that the villain be a bit wordier than usual. Now, that cliché being so common is a good reason to rephrase in itself, but it's also a likely motive on the part of the writer. (It's also more forgiveable in earlier texts, before the wordy murderer became so over-used).

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Jon's answer has a nice focus on the pragmatic difference between the two, but I want to elaborate the grammatical difference.

The examples are different because of aspect. The first example is in the perfect aspect, and expresses an action already completed. "We could have avoided" suggests that the action is already done, and out of the way. The could-have-avoiding is over. "We could avoid" doesn't have an aspect. Intuitively, to me at least, it implies something more general, suggesting that the killer would avoid this day in every similar situation without discussing the past event, whereas by saying "we could have avoided", the killer is making an explicit reference to a completed event.

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Indeed with could avoid, the hope may be gone, but theoretically something might still be avoided. When we could have avoided, the avoiding has failed, and it became true. –  oerkelens Jun 10 at 13:11
The difference is subtle in this case because a) it's in the first person and b) "this day" is already happening. It's clearer if you consider "he had hoped he could avoid the momentous day" versus "he had hoped he could have avoided the momentous day". –  Rupe Jun 10 at 13:20
+1, though a key thing here is that in this example, the meaning with either aspect amounts to the same thing; strictly there is a difference but the logical implication of each is the same, and "a difference that makes no difference is not a difference". With such cases we're left picking on the grounds of style, likelihood of a character using a given form or word, euphony, and so on, rather than on the grounds of correctness. –  Jon Hanna Jun 10 at 13:42
Oh sure, logically they amount to the same, and both are equally valid. But there is a pragmatic and a grammatical difference. Both are worth commenting on, no? –  Leo King Jun 10 at 13:47

The 'ol active voice/passive voice argument rears it's head again. If we strip the rest of the passive voice from that sentence we get, "For what it's worth, I hoped we could avoid this day."

One thing is certain, this villain has never read Strunk and White: Omit unnecessary words. Even "day" sounds a little weird.

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Or they read Strunk and White and threw it in the bin where it belongs? For that matter, by your reasoning that someone who doesn't follow Strunk and White hasn't read Strunk and White, it's clear that Strunk and White haven't read Strunk and White. –  Jon Hanna Jun 10 at 12:25
@Satanicpuppy, there's no passive voice in either example. The difference between them is aspect. "we could avoid this day" doesn't have an aspect, while "we could have avoided this day" is in perfect aspect, showing an action that has already been completed, i.e. we've already finished our "could-have-avoiding". –  Leo King Jun 10 at 13:03
Changing the verb tenses and changing the meaning (from "this day" to "this event") does not fall under "removing unnecessary words". Under your definition of that principle, the whole sentence can be rendered as "Sorry". –  oerkelens Jun 10 at 13:08
@oerkelens in fairness, that could be a better line of dialogue, but it's a much greater change than a decision as to aspect. –  Jon Hanna Jun 10 at 13:20
@LeoKing It's not clear just what S&W mean by "passive voice", but considering that they declare "There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" as an example, it's not what anyone who studies grammar means by it. Of the four examples they give, only one happens to be in the passive voice, perhaps by chance. The actual text condemning it uses it frequently. Still, if Strunk was any good he wouldn't have needed White to rewrite his views on how to write well, and if White had of followed the views he was expounding he wouldn't have written well enough to convince anyone of them. –  Jon Hanna Jun 10 at 13:35

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