3

I have a question about using could and could have in rhetorical questions.

I was watching a video where a very old man who was talking to a priest about his childhood asked the priest, “How could I tell my father what music meant to me?” as a rhetorical question.

In this context, it is clear that it was completely impossible for him to have told his father what music meant to him.

Therefore “telling his father what music meant to him” did NOT happen, so he was talking to the priest about an event that had not happened.

As far as I know, “could have” is used for an event in the past that did not turn out to happen. For example, when I say I could run in the past, this means I possessed the ability to run, so this is about something that in reality DID happen.

However, when I say I could have run, this means despite my ability to run, I did not run. So this is about something that did NOT happen in reality, but which I am saying it could hypothetically have happened.

Accordingly, when I say I could not run, this is about something that did NOT happen in reality. And when I say I could not have run, this is about something that did NOT happen in reality and means even hypothetically it was impossible.

So when I ask “How I could run?”, I understand it is a question about how I had the ability to run. But when I ask “How I could have run?”, I understand it is a hypothetical question about how I would have had an ability to run that I did not in reality possess.

The difference I see between two is that when I ask “How I could run?”, my running in the past DID happen. But when I ask “How I could have run?”, my running did NOT happen but it could have happened if only some circumstances had been met.

So my question is why the old man asked “How could I tell him what music meant to me?” instead of asking “How could I have told him what music meant to me?”, since telling his father did NOT happen, and, as far as I can understand, he was talking about a purely hypothetical situation.

What am I missing?

  • 1
    Welcome (back) to our site, and thank you for taking the time to expand a bit on the previous instance of your question. I have edited it to more closely follow our normal formatting conventions here regarding italics, to make it easier to read by adding blank lines between logical paragraphs, and to ever so gently reword a point here or there for the sake of clarity. If in so doing I have mistakenly put any words into your mouth that you feel do not fit the sense of what you are trying to say, then by all means do please edit it to fix it to your liking again. – tchrist Jan 14 '18 at 21:25
1

This understanding is not correct:

So when I ask “How I could run?”, I understand it is a question about how I had the ability to run. But when I ask “How I could have run?”, I understand it is a hypothetical question about how I would have had an ability to run that I did not in reality possess.

(By the way, you meant to write "How could I […]", not *"How I could […]".)

"How could I run?" is a perfectly valid rhetorical question, meaning roughly "I couldn't run." It is, among other things, the past tense of "How can I run?", which (if used rhetorically) means roughly "I can't run."

It's perfectly fine to use the conditional mood in rhetorical questions like this — we can change "How can I run?" to "How could I run?" and "How could I run?" to "How could I have run?" with little change in meaning — but it's also perfectly fine to not use the conditional mood.

  • 1
    @Nostradamus: No, your assessment is still wrong. "I'm not doing it" doesn't imply "I can't do it", and "I didn't do it" doesn't imply "I couldn't do it". "How could I tell him?", if meant non-rhetorically, doesn't presuppose that I did tell him, merely that I could tell him. – ruakh Jan 14 '18 at 23:56
  • 1
    Re: "Then as the last question, can we say 'could' leaves the question of whether I did it unanswered but 'could have' definitely shows I did NOT do it?": Not necessarily; consider e.g. "I don't remember for sure how I met him, but I could have used one of my contacts in the industry." (It's hard to make generalizations, because could has so many different meanings.) – ruakh Jan 15 '18 at 7:39
  • 1
    Re: "is it fair to say in daily uses, most of the time, when 'I could V' is used, it is supposed that 'I did V' but it is only supposed out of custom and does not necessarily have to be meant by 'I could do V'?": I doubt it. I would bet that "I could V" usually does not mean "I did V". – ruakh Jan 15 '18 at 7:43
  • 1
    Re: "when used in respect of past ability, 'could' usually assumes that he DID it": I doubt that. – ruakh Jan 15 '18 at 22:02
  • 1
    It's the same as the difference between "He can do it tomorrow" and "He could do it tomorrow"; they're basically synonymous, but the former is a bit more "direct" and the latter is a bit more "remote". The choice between them may be affected by whether he actually did/will do it, but it's not a decisive factor. – ruakh Jan 15 '18 at 23:52

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.