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I've been trying to explain to a non-native English speaker why "We could lift the rock" allows two interpretations:

  • "We were able to lift the rock"
  • "We might be able to lift the rock [in the future]"

but "We could get caught" only allows one:

  • "We might get caught [in the future]"

I realize that one would need to say "We could have gotten caught" if one meant "There was a possibility that we would be caught". However, I can't put my finger on what makes the instances different. Is it the use of the passive? Is it the semantics?

UPDATE: I understand that one can add more context that makes the "past" interpretation acceptable: "He thought that we could get caught." My question is: in the absence of such additional context, why is "We could lift the rock" ambiguous while "We could get caught" is not?

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    I could see you could be Past Tense (I could see you behind the curtain yesterday, but you didn't see me) where it usually implies I was able to, and did - as opposed to I could have seen you, which implies I was able to, but didn't. Or it could be "hypothetical" (I could see you tomorrow, but I don't really want to). – FumbleFingers Dec 31 '17 at 16:25
  • Because of "get"... change it to "could be caught" and the ambiguity is back. – Jim Jan 1 '18 at 17:47
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"We didn't know that we could get caught in the trap, unfortunately."

"We could get caught in that trap, if we're not careful."

It appears to allow the same two interpretations as when talking about lifting rocks. Could (to be able) can be used instead of would (to will), to distinguish between something actually occurring vs. the potential for something to occur.

  • What you mention had occurred to me, but I hadn't reflected it explicitly in my question. Now I've updated the question. In the absence of additional context, why is "We could lift the rock" ambiguous while "We could get caught" is not? – Alan Dec 31 '17 at 15:24
  • Okay. Then it is the absence of context which would cause ambiguity. Because there is always some context present in communication: it must either be supplied, or applied. If an author does not supply the context, then it is left to the audience to apply whatever context is meaningful for themselves. Applied context can never be "wrong" or "mistaken" -- in cases where the context was omitted by the author. The ambiguity is in the omission. – Bread Dec 31 '17 at 16:52
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    "We could lift the rock" in the sense of "were able to" implies that lifting it was something you wanted to do, but getting caught is not likely to be something you wished to happen, so the other meaning is the only plausible one. – Kate Bunting Dec 31 '17 at 17:09
  • Maybe so, but it doesn't change the fact that could may be used in the past tense for either context. – Bread Dec 31 '17 at 17:26
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The passive construction, in the example the get-passive, is not confined to the first sense you give.

In those days, there was tighter security around the gardens in the evening. We could get caught if we weren't very careful to stay away from the lit areas.

But the 'might be caught [in the future]' reading is the default one, and a rephrasing more likely with the 'past-state/occurrence' sense. This is especially true with minimal context. But some context, not necessarily in the same sentence, is almost mandatory in all these cases. With the 'past-state/occurrence' sense:

It was dangerous as well as exciting trespassing in the gardens. We might get caught. And then we would be without fail grounded for weeks.

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I'm going to answer this question myself, both because I want to synthesize what I have learned through the various helpful responses that people have left and because some of them were left in the form of comments rather than answers.

  • As @FumbleFingers pointed out, "could" generally means either "was able to, and did" or "might be able to in the future". Where "was able to, but did not" is meant, we usually use "could have" instead.

  • As @Kate Bunting pointed out, our prior knowledge tells us that people generally avoid getting caught, so "we could get caught" is less likely to mean "we wanted to get caught, and succeeded" than "there is a future possibility of getting caught".

One more thing that occurs to me is that in some cases where people cite "could" as ostensibly referring to the past, it is indeed referring to a past time, but to a statement or thought that refers to a possibility in the future as seen from that time. So, for instance, "we didn't know that we could get caught" is still about a future possibility.

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