I am aware of the usage of COULD in the following cases (list from Cambridge Grammar (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/modals-and-modality/could)):

  • possibility in the present and the future.
  • suggestions and permissions
  • past ability
  • past single events with verbs of senses and mental processes

Also, this makes clear that sentences like "I could visit you yesterday but I was lazy" or "He could travel to China a week ago" are incorrect.

But then the are sentences like:

  • Hundreds of years ago, even a simple injury could be fatal.
  • In the ancient Rome, you could have both male and female lovers and nobody wondered.

For the following examples, I was told that these are statements of fact:

  • I could buy it yesterday and I did.
  • Back then, travelling could be dangerous.

What usage of "could"would that be? I cannot see a fitting case in the overview. Why those are correct even when "COULD" refer to the past events?

1 Answer 1


A simple injury could be fatal is past possibility or past capability. Not all simple injuries were fatal, but one could be. It is not a simple statement of fact that all injuries, even simple ones, were fatal hundreds of years ago. If you had a simple injury it might prove fatal. It was capable of killing you.

you could have both male and female lovers again refers to a past possibility or a past capability. Gender was not an irrelevancy in all love relationships in ancient Rome, but it was possibly an irrelevancy. Gender could be irrelevant as far as people were concerned. A person was capable (not prevented by societal taboo) of having lovers of either gender.

  • So are you saying the first sentence is not correct? I made those up. My point is - the grammar source I linked does not list this usage for COULD, or maybe it is implied by some of the entries? I mean, I guess I should not say "A simple injury could have been fatal" in this case, or "might have been" in your case.
    – John V
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 14:01
  • No, I am not saying it is incorrect. I'm saying that the first sentence about simple injuries falls into the first category in your bulleted list.
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 14:03
  • Well but you mention "past" possibility, while the grammar there confines this to present and future possibilities (more details in the link I put in the question).
    – John V
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 14:04
  • I don't think that grammar page "confines" anything. It is a quick and dirty listing, not presenting itself as the final word on the subject.
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 14:07
  • What I am trying to understand is - according to that grammar guide, I should not use "could" for past possibilities. But using "could have" changes the sense, in my opinion.
    – John V
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 14:07

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