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While reading Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays by George Orwell, I stumbled by the sentence

When this episode happened I do not think I can have been less than twelve years old.

(Source)

Can you explain the usage of can have been in the context?

  • I think we have to trust Eric Blair, here. He was a master of the language. It's an emphatic form of "I think it not possible that I was as young as twelve." – deadrat Feb 17 '17 at 7:43
  • @deadrat yeah, he was great indeed, and thank you for your kind reply, you've made it much clearer to me! – Mark Krasivii Feb 17 '17 at 9:28
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    The use of the modal "... I can have been less than .." (instead of the non-modal "...I was less than.. ") implies a greater degree of uncertainty by the author as to his age when the episode happened. – BillJ Feb 17 '17 at 9:50
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"When this episode happened I do not think I can have been less than twelve years old."

First, it's COULD not CAN.

Second, it's an awkward sentence construction. It's better to say: I think I could not have been... than I don't think I can have been...

The meaning is what Kate Bunting said: "he cannot remember his exact age at the time, but thinks he must have been at least twelve."

To make the meaning easier to grasp, just remove unnecessary words. Example: "When that happened, I could not have been less than twelve."

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    -1 The OP correctly quotes the source, which has can. – AmE speaker Mar 20 '17 at 4:02
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    -1 It's not everyday I see Orwell's prose criticised as being awkward. – Rio1210 Mar 22 '17 at 0:12

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