I have often heard the phrase “He couldn’t be with us today”.

However, this seems contradictory because “today” is in the present, but “couldn’t” is past tense (or subjunctive, but the sentence is clearly not in the subjunctive).

So which of the following is correct?

  • He is very ill, so he couldn’t be with us today.
  • He is very ill, so he can’t be with us today.
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    Either is fine. Don't sweat it. – Robusto Jan 30 '15 at 23:27
  • Speculation: maybe originally it was "so he couldn't be with us today even if it were really important" or something along those lines? – RomanSt Jan 30 '15 at 23:28
  • Probably He couldn't [manage to / make it here to / come to] be with us today. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 30 '15 at 23:41

We all don't trust ngrams to mean much, but still, if there's no practical difference in the corpus, there isn't much point in arguing correctness.

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    Note, however, that if the meeting is already over, you would use "couldn't be with us". Which is probably why the ngram results are so similar: it is nearly as common to refer to past events as to current ones. There is no reason to infer from ngram that the usage of "couldn't" were used in reference to a currently-occurring event. So I would completely discount the ngram argument in this case, unless one can adduce numerous usages of "couldn't" in the PRESENT sense. – Brian Hitchcock Jan 31 '15 at 11:16
  • @BrianHitchcock I wouldn't be upset if the first thing said at a meeting was John Doe couldn't be with us today. I'd fully understand that this means that the ability for this person to be with us (as in, he could be with us, but chose not to) was negated prior to the meeting start. Also, since the OQ says "which is correct", the answer is either. – SrJoven Jan 31 '15 at 14:22
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    I didn't mean that usage was wrong, or even uncommon. I simply meant that "couldn't be here" is more common for the past situation than "can't", which is clearly wrong there. That's why I doubted that the ngram results should be read as indicating that "couldn't" is equally popular for the present-tense case. – Brian Hitchcock Jan 31 '15 at 14:46

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