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.


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, 2017 at 7:43
  • @deadrat yeah, he was great indeed, and thank you for your kind reply, you've made it much clearer to me! Feb 17, 2017 at 9:28
  • 4
    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, 2017 at 9:50

1 Answer 1


"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."

  • 2
    -1 The OP correctly quotes the source, which has can. Mar 20, 2017 at 4:02
  • 1
    -1 It's not everyday I see Orwell's prose criticised as being awkward.
    – Rio1210
    Mar 22, 2017 at 0:12

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