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I have a colleague who wrote:

We love what this new tool enables us to do that we never could have done before.

And I responded to that it sounds a bit awkward. I've since reworked it into:

We love that this new tool enables us to build solutions that we never could have built before.

Update: Correction from "what" to "that" thanks to comments.

Is it the ambiguity that gets me? Or is there a sentence structure, grammatical rule or definition at play? I'd appreciate a thoughtful explanation that I can't see without the vocabulary to do so.

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  • "never could" is unusual, "could not" sits much better. Not sure what the official reason is though.
    – user252684
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 0:50
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    We love how this new tool lets us do things we never could before.
    – KarlG
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 0:53
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    Your reworked version isn't grammatical. Did you mean "that" instead of "what"? Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 1:16
  • "Never could ... before" actually sounds fine to me. It makes a stronger statement than "could not ... before"; the "could not" version might occur if we once knew how to do those things but forgot or lost the ability.
    – David K
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 1:26
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    A suggested rewrite: "We love what this new tool enables us to do. We never could have done such things before."
    – David K
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 1:27

3 Answers 3

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The original quote isn’t awkward. It’s an effusive expression of delight at being able to do something new, thanks to the tool.

The restatement, though, is awkward. Either replace what with that as suggested in comments, or add a dash between build and solutions.

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  • Thanks. Could you explain that using the grammatical terminology I lack? I appreciate it.
    – mbb
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 17:23
  • @mbb Which part would you like more explanation about?
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 0:34
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I have to disagree with one of the answers here; the original quote is awkward. There are two clauses in it, just mashed together.

We love what this new tool enables us to do

and

[something] that we never could have done before

One possibility would be to say

We love what this new tool enables us to do – that which we never could have done before.

or

We love what this new tool enables us to do: what we never could have done before.

However, I see nothing wrong with your reworded version, which is less vague anyway.

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"never could" should be "could never". Its an incorrect placement of a negative adverb.

...Which teaches me to never answer questions when I'm tired.

CMOS 16thEd. sec 5.168 - Within a verb phrase, the adverb goes between the auxiliary verb and the principal verb.

"we never could have done before"

'could' is an auxiliary verb (specifically a modal auxiliary verb), 'have done' is the primary verb, and 'never' is the adverb.

'Never' should have been placed between 'could' and 'have done'

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    Welcome to ELU. Can you provide a little more detail (e.g. a reference explaining the correct “placement of a negative adverb”)? Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 1:44
  • In common usage, I don't think many people follow this rule
    – binaryfunt
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 18:18

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