I'm having a discussion on Duolingo about this sentence in French that translates into:

I was able to have lunch before you arrived.

An alternate translation (also accepted by Duolingo) goes like this:

I could have lunch before you arrived.

It sounds odd, and I would certainly never say it like that, but is the second (alternate) translation technically correct, since could is the preterite form of can?

EDIT: The original French version of the sentence is:

J'ai pu déjeuner avant que tu arrives.

(The latter part is in subjunctive.)

  • 1
    It sounds so like 'I could have lunch before you arrive' that there is a temptation to see it as an error. Try 'I was right, there was enough time: I could have lunch (/ finish my homework) before you arrived!' Dec 23 '17 at 22:50
  • 2
    @WS2 See Edwin’s comment. Could can also mean ‘was able to [and successfully did]’ here, though it requires a fair amount of brain-forcing. I’m guessing the French would go something like, “J’ai pu [prendre mon] déjeuner avant que tu es arrivé”. I would agree that Duolingo would have done better not to accept could here, since it requires such a very specific context to work at all, and even then is somewhat odd. Dec 23 '17 at 23:41
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet Hmm, yes. I see entirely what you are saying. Some people might use 'could' in that way with past inference, but far more likely a person of average erudition would add a past marker such as 'I found I could have lunch before you arrived'. As it stands I would not rate it as grammatical.
    – WS2
    Dec 24 '17 at 0:07
  • 2
    "could have had" definitely implies "didn't" to me Dec 24 '17 at 6:41
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet As you point out by your "and successfully did", translation is tricky here because unlike Romance, English modals cannot via tense alone distinguish an imperfect past describing an historical condition and a completed past that’s all done with. Compare “J’ai pu prendre mon déjeuner avant que tu sois arrivé” (perfect=was able and did) with “Je pouvais prendre mon déjeuner avant que tu sois arrivé, mais ce dont tu viens de m'informer a changé tout ça et maintenant je n'ai pas de faim.” (imperfect=was able but in this case didn't).
    – tchrist
    Dec 25 '17 at 14:00

I was able to {have lunch} before you arrived

talks about past ability. You can change the sentence into an interrogative

Were you able to {have lunch} before I arrived?

And your first sentence provides the answer.

The could equivalent is

I could {have lunch} before you arrived.

This is a positive response to the question

Could you {have lunch} before I arrived?

Before someone objects that the sentence is not natural, let’s look at two sentences with could where the meaning of past ability is plain and the sentences sounds more natural:

I could guess your age/height/weight before you told me.


I could guess the meaning of your riddle before you finished telling it.

Note that all these sentences talk strictly about past ability...they don’t necessarily say anything about whether the task was carried out. This can be seen by the following:

I was able to have lunch before you arrived, but I didn’t (have lunch).

I could have lunch before you arrived, but I didn’t (have lunch).

And the more natural sounding

I could guess your age/height/weight before you told me, but I didn’t (guess it).

I could guess the meaning of your riddle before you finished telling it, but I didn’t (guess it).

I was able to can be substituted for I could in the last two sentences.

So, yes, both sentences you ask about refer to past ability; they are equivalent in meaning. So the could sentences (declarative & interrogative) are just as grammatical as the was/were able to sentences. And the declarative is a possible alternative translation.

  • To convey the "can and did" bit, sometimes a less literal word-for-word translation works better, with “I managed to catch lunch before you got here” being just one possible approach. Unfortunately one cannot hope for a computer program at Duolingo to support such liberties.
    – tchrist
    Dec 25 '17 at 14:22

Ah, ça aide, merci! Oui, "avant que" prend le subjonctif.

The English literal rendition illustrates the challenge of translation: "I could have lunched before you arrive." The equivalent sentiment expressed in American English is "I was able to have lunch before your arrival."

  • Do you mean that the usual interpretation of the French original is that the possible past-tense lunch did occur? Dec 25 '17 at 2:56
  • 1
    Yes, The part of the French sentence, word-for-word, that forms the first clause is: I (Je, but in French a terminating vowel is dropped when followed by a word beginning with a vowel)/ have (ai) /past participle of "pouvoir", "to be able to", or "can" or "may"/avant ("before")/que ("that")/tu ("you" informal form/arrives (arrive--subjunctive case). The difficulty arises from the fact that in French there is a present subjunctive case and a past tense of the subjunctive. The problem is that modern speakers don't often use the past subjunctive, so it could be "arrive" or "arrived".
    – Allen S.
    Dec 25 '17 at 7:33
  • The context, however, makes it clear that "arrived" is implied,
    – Allen S.
    Dec 25 '17 at 7:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.