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BACKGROUND

In this earlier thread, Edwin Ashworth approved a use of 'could have + past participle' for the future event that was precluded by context as in:

(1) Mary could have arrived tomorrow, had she managed to get that flight.

But he did not approve a use of 'could have + past participle' for possible events in the future as in:

(2) */?Mary could have arrived tomorrow.

Nor did he approve a use of 'may have + past participle' for possible events in the future as in:

(3) (?)Mary may have arrived by next week.

(4) *Mary may have arrived tomorrow.

I think that there is no reason to treat 'next week' and 'tomorrow' differently insofar as both refer to a future time. So the different treatment for the latter two examples is because of the existence of the preposition 'by'. That is, inserting 'by' would somehow increase the acceptability at least for the 'may have + past participle' construction.

QUESTION

My question is whether inserting 'by' would increase the acceptability of the 'could have + past participle' construction as in (2):

(2') Mary could have arrived by tomorrow.

Note that (2') is along the lines of (2) in that Mary's arriving tomorrow is a possible future event as opposed to a future event precluded by context as in (1).

ADDITIONAL EXAMPLE

An example of the 'could have + past participle' construction being used in a possible future event similar to (2') is found in this Harry Potter:

Malfoy could have attacked half the Muggle-borns in the school by then!

EDIT

I'll have to admit that it was not easy to find an example of the 'could have + past participle' construction being used in a possible future event. So maybe it's not that idiomatic to use the construction for a possible future event. Does that mean that (2') as well as the Harry Potter example is somehow unnatural?

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    I've no problems with 'Mary could have arrived by tomorrow.' (though 'Mary may have arrived by tomorrow.' sounds stylistically slightly better to my ear; this perhaps explains perceptions of relative frequency of usage. However, neither variant (- 'Mary') scores more than two relevant hits on Google!) J K Rowling will doubtless be relieved to know that her sentence is fine (if worrying). I'd say the constructions (which only work, as you say, with by- and before-phrases etc) are rarely used because they're rarely needed. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 21 '15 at 9:46
  • Thanks for the excellent explanation. You could have written an answer along the lines of the comment. But the comment itself answered my question. – JK2 Feb 22 '15 at 0:38
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The construction you're suggesting might be reasonable in certain contexts. The HP sentence would seem natural in the context of a discussion about a specific time in the future (the ides of March) or if Malfoy was being compared with someone else. Why wouldn't the simpler "Malfoy could kill..." be used? Because the perfect construction carries with it the idea of accumulation. Your sample sentence: "Mary could have arrived by midnight," doesn't sound natural to me (without a negative context), but "Mary could have walked ten miles by the morning," does sound natural, and it likely has to do with the idea of something accumulating.

  • Proposing the concept of accumulation is why the bounty has been awarded. But I cannot accept this answer just yet, because it doesn't explain why the concept of accumulation is required in the epistemic 'could have + past participle' construction but not in the epistemic 'will have + past participle' construction. If you've got an answer to that, please add it to your answer. Thanks. – JK2 Oct 29 '15 at 7:03
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In my opinion, adding by to a sentence would not increase the acceptability, and to me it seems to be used in a prepositional manner. Consider the difference between the two sentences:

Mary could have arrived by midnight.

Mary could have walked by the wharf.

Could and Have are being used, as I believe you mentioned, as linking verbs. Wikipedia has a nice write up on Conditional Perfects, and one example mostly stolen from there:

If we hadn't been stuck in traffic, we could have arrived by midnight.

In this, the by is not only helpful, it is required, but again, it is being used as a preposition.

I think Edwin Ashworth really nailed it, in that these phrases are rarely used because they are rarely needed.

I'm not sure if this was helpful or not, but I certainly learned some things, so thanks for the opportunity.

  • Sorry, but your answer is outside the scope of my question. Besides, what do you mean "could" and "have" are being used as linking verbs?? – JK2 Oct 29 '15 at 2:54
  • Your question is "My question is whether inserting 'by' would increase the acceptability of the 'could have + past participle' construction as in (2):". My answer was clearly stated at the start as "no". Then I went on to explain why. – USER_8675309 Oct 29 '15 at 12:28
  • Yes, you did provide the answer. But only the answer. And then you strayed away from the call of the question. Please read the last sentence of my question part. – JK2 Oct 29 '15 at 13:06
  • I do understand where our differences lie. I also would like to point out that the Harry Potter example is dialogue, spoken by Ron, who hasn't always used the greatest of grammar (which is also not relevant to the fact that spoken word can bend the rules somewhat) Anyways, cheers, and good luck – USER_8675309 Oct 29 '15 at 14:20
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Adding "by" significantly modifies the meaning of the sentence. To "arrive tomorrow" is not the same as to "arrive by tomorrow". In order to arrive tomorrow, one would have to arrive no earlier and no later than tomorrow. But in order to arrive by tomorrow, one would only have to arrive no later than tomorrow and could, in fact, arrive today or even last week.

While it happens to be a valid sentence, it does not reflect the same meaning as the original example ("Mary could have arrived tomorrow, had she managed to get that flight."), so it should not be considered a way to fix the phrase "Mary could have arrived tomorrow."

  • I do understand that there is difference in meaning between the version with 'by' and the one without. But it's not about maintaining the meaning of the sentence intact, it's about figuring out whether and why a particular construction works. – JK2 Oct 29 '15 at 2:59
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This construction is not that uncommon. 'By' is essential (or implied) since it sets the limit before which the other event must be completed (or not):

By the time I get to Phoenix she could have found a new romance;

By the end of the week you could have painted the whole house;

(By) This time next year they could have reached Patagonia;

The sunflowers could have grown taller than me by July.

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