In the sentence

"Who would have thought he could do it!"

Does "could do" mean "was able to do" or "would be able to do"?

  • 2
    Could be either, only context can tell. The latter is probably a more common thing to express, though. Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 13:09
  • Isn't there something like looking back on it (was able) and travelling back in time to when people formed this opinion of him, about his at-the-time present and future inability to do it (would be able)?
    – user58319
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 13:43
  • 1
    Contrast 'For an obscure artist, his paintings are amazing. Who would have thought he could paint like Whistler?' with 'What he did is astounding. Who would have thought he could make it to the top of Everest?' Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 14:10

1 Answer 1


"Who would have thought he could do it!"

In your question, although the proper way to state the expanded version is "would be able to do (it), the actual expansion closer to the reality of the situation is was able to do (it).

Looking on it from the past, people doubting his abilities might sat, "He won't be able to do it". If it wasn't tried already, they would be (technically) incorrect in saying "he can't do it" because no one knows if that's true until that person tries it.

Now, it has been attempted, and against expectations, he has succeeded.

Who would have thought he was able to do it expresses this correctly, even though the first part of the sentence is in the conditional.

Having said all that, people don't always speak or write according to rules or logic.

"Who would have thought he could do it!" is shorter and has the advantage of sounding correct by using two 'conditional' terms.

  • I see… It is all a question of point of view. From a past point of view, the sentence becomes "(At the time,) Who thought he could do / would be able to do it?". Starting the sentence "Who would have thought…" implies a present point of view, from which I can see that the people who doubted his capacities at the time were mistaken, or were later proved to be mistaken. So, in keeping with this present viewpoint, I should follow this with "… that he could do / was able to do it!". Simple enough, come to think of it… Did I get you right?
    – user58319
    Commented Feb 4, 2014 at 14:11
  • yes, you understood me correctly. Commented Feb 4, 2014 at 14:24

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