Let's suppose I have two simple sentences:

1. I could run faster than Bob.
2. I could have run faster than Bob.

The first sentence can have the following meaning:

[1a] I was able to run faster than Bob yesterday but I can't today.
[1b] I could run faster than Bob now or in the future.

Whereas the second example means:

[2a] I didn't run faster than Bob, but I would have probably run faster under certain circumstances.
[2b] [Is there any other meaning?]

  • 1
    [2b] Yes, Bob ran a good race, but let's wait until all the times are posted. It's always a bit tricky to say who did best with time trials. I could have run faster than Bob. Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 15:48
  • @EdwinAshworth so it also shows uncertainty, possibility which doesn't require a condition ? it means that there might have been a good chance that I ran faster than Bob, right?
    – nullbyte
    Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 16:04
  • 1
    [2a'] The race started 4 hours ago and lasted 5 minutes. Bob and I ran in it. He ran faster than I did (though I could have beaten him if I'd wanted to). // [2b'] The race finished 8 minutes ago, but was run as a time trial. Bob and I ran in it, but the times haven't been posted yet. I could have run faster than Bob – or he could have run faster than me. We'll soon find out which. Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 16:16

1 Answer 1


In your first example, could, the preterite form of the modal verb can be used in two different types of constructions. First (reading a), it's interpreted as referring to past time (the most common use for the preterite). We'll call it a past tense construction. Then second (reading b), it's used to express modality (or "mood" in traditional grammar) and not time; specifically, the speaker's judgment about what is possible. This is called a modal preterite construction.

In the second example, only the modal preterite meaning is available because have + V has restricted distribution because it has a stative aspectual class (see Vendler's (1957) paper Verbs and Times on this topic).

For example, you can use the progressive tense with non-stative verbs:

Thomas is running right now.
Thomas is thinking right now.

But not with stative verbs:

*Thomas is knowing the answer.
*Thomas is believing in miracles.
*Thomas is having killed a bear.

Interestingly, consider that:

Thomas could know the answer.

...has only one reading (the speaker thinks it's possible that he knows the answer), while "Thomas could run faster" has two readings (at a specific time in the past something happened that let him run faster, or the speaker judges that he is (now or in the near future) able to run faster).

I wonder whether this has been remarked upon as a test for stative aspect before.

  • So sentence 2 is an example of the modal preterite, which conveys only modality (here, possibility or ability) and not time? Unfortunately for this claim, I could have run faster than Bob covers a specific time span in the past. It's the construction in sentence 1 that needn't be temporally anchored. The response "You could be right" can apply to a past statement or a prediction, or it can express a stative present.
    – deadrat
    Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 6:15
  • @deadrat the embedded phrase have run faster than Bob has perfect tense, so it's necessarily interpreted as referring to a time frame. So the time reference doesn't come from could. That might be another reason why the past tense reading is blocked.
    – user31341
    Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 14:56
  • Point taken....
    – deadrat
    Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 17:55

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