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Take, for example, this sentence:

Away from Vatican City, Tome was quiet as authorities ordered all public offices and schools to close (close), and banned (ban) cars from the roads. Millions of Catholics who ______________ (not get) to Italy, bid (bid) him farewell in myriad services round the globe.

What's the grammatically correct form of the concept "to not get" in this context, to fill in the blank and complete the sentence?

The word must be derived from "get", or the phrase include "get", in order to be consistent with the pattern that that the words/phrases preceding bracketed words are derivations of those bracketed words.

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    Probably could not, but could easily be did not. Either would be grammatically correct, and the difference would come down to the particular shade of meaning the author desired to express. – Robusto Feb 26 '15 at 12:36
  • "Millions of Catholics who were unable to get to Italy" also fits. – Mari-Lou A Feb 26 '15 at 12:38
  • 'Could not get to Italy' suggests that they were not able to go to Italy for some reason. 'Didn't get to Italy' suggests they just didn't go, but not necessarily that they intended to go. – user66974 Feb 26 '15 at 12:47
  • Thanks for clearing my doubt Robusto and Josh61. Mari-Lou A I have a question for you. Upon discussing the answers of Robusto and Josh61 with my friend he agreed that using "could not" is more appropriate in this scenario because of the reasons as mentioned by both of them, but he told me not to use "unable to" as it was not a modal verb. So, could you please shed light on this? When I asked him the reason behind it, he explained in a manner which was not understood by me! – Ranajoy Saha Feb 26 '15 at 12:59
  • "Could not" means that there was some reason why the activity was not possible. "Did not" means that either the people "could not", or for some other reason they chose to not undertake the activity. – Hot Licks Feb 26 '15 at 13:03
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The difference is similar to that of can and may. Saying to someone "Sorry, I could not get to that" is like saying "I can't get to it because I am physically or mentally unable to." If you "Did not get to that" it means you most likely can, just were busy in the mean time with no time to do said task. "I'm sorry, I did not get to that. I'll do it right now."

I hope this answers your question!

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Comments by Josh61 notwithstanding, to get to X normally implies to reach a target [location, situation, condition]. This implication is even stronger in negated constructions, where to not get to X strongly implies there was a failed attempt to reach X. Consider...

1: I did not get to the party last night
2: I did not make it to the party last night
3: I did not go to the party last night

...where #1 and #2 are largely equivalent (I wanted and/or made some attempt to attend the party, but for some reason I wasn't able to be there). #3 carries no such implications, which illustrates a clear distinction between get and go in such constructions.


Therefore, although in general there's a difference between did not ("neutral", implying nothing about desirability or possibility) and could not ("loaded", implying being prevented from doing something, usually desirable), in OP's specific context there's really little to choose between the two, because of the way to get to X is normally understood.

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  • I see significant difference. Maybe it's just me. – Kris Feb 26 '15 at 14:03
  • @Kris: Are you seriously saying you don't see much difference between "We didn't get to the funeral" (we'd have liked to, but it wasn't possible) and "We didn't go to the funeral" (perhaps because we never wanted to be there anyway)? – FumbleFingers Feb 26 '15 at 14:12
  • I do see a difference, did I say I don't? :) – Kris Feb 26 '15 at 14:46
  • @Kris: I assume you meant you do see a difference between did not and could not. My entire argument here is based on the premise that to get to X (as opposed to to go to X) already implies a "desire" to end up at X, particularly in negated contexts. Therefore to my mind it makes no real difference whether OP explicitly reinforces the "frustrated desire" element using could, since it's effectively just repeating the implication already made by choosing to use get to rather than go to. – FumbleFingers Feb 26 '15 at 14:58

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