I am reading the Harry Potter series recently and I have difficulty in understanding the following 3 examples:

1) What could he have been thinking of?It must have been a trick of the light.

2)But then it struck Mr.Dursley that this was probably some silly stunt--these people were obviously collecting for something...yes,that would be it.

3)He'd never even seen the boy.It might have been Harvey. Or Harold.

I think these three examples are all expressing Mr.Dursley's mental world by the author's speech, and that's why there's a 'have' after 'must' and 'might' in the first and third example. Likewise, the last sentence in the second should be 'that would have been it.' in my opinion.

Help me out with this. Thank you all.

  • "What could I have been thinking of?" means that I've had a mental aberration (and/or possibly done something stupid or even reprehensible) and now I'd rather forget all about that notion / deed. Feb 12, 2020 at 16:27
  • The use of have in these three modal verb examples do not enhance the modal verb meaning. They apply the use of the past perfect tense to these modals to express WHEN these conditional/modal thoughts occurred.
    – Karlomanio
    Feb 12, 2020 at 17:19
  • Are you sure the question is not relaxed? [joke] [suggestion: "I've been reading the HP books recently". versus "I am reading the HP books now."]. All these uses might be found with a little research on must and might. The uses must be explained somewhere.
    – Lambie
    Feb 12, 2020 at 19:30
  • @Karlomanio, Thank you for your comment. I understand what you mean, but the question is the second does not apply the use of the past perfect tense by using 'have' in the sentence 'yes, that would be it'. Feb 13, 2020 at 1:27
  • @Boldben Thank you. I think you perfectly solved my problem. Feb 13, 2020 at 14:50

2 Answers 2


The second half of the second example isn't in the past tense at all. It's in the present tense because it's reporting Dursley's thought process at the time. The first part is in the past tense but that is merely placing the occurrence in the past


*What could he have been thinking of?*is the past tense of What can he be thinking of?

In "... yes,that would be it." would expresses probability and likelihood = "Yes that was probably it.

In It might have been Harvey, "might" expresses a lower probability than "may" or "could".

The tenses are in the past as they refer to actions in the past.

  • Thank you for your answer. You mean 'could' ,'would','might' all express probability and likelihood. My question is, the first and third example are both past tense by using 'have', shouldn't the second be 'that would have been it'? as it also refers to past time. Feb 13, 2020 at 14:01

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.