Consider this sentence, please:

  1. He was jailed five years ago and could be released next year.

Can I say that sentence 1) has two interpretations depending on the the degree of stress placed on "could"? For example:

a) With unstressed "could":

It means that the authority have the legal right to release him early, so they could do it if they so chose.

b) With stressed "could" (speculation):

It means his release may possibly happen next year, and it is interchangeable with "might":

He was jailed five years ago and might be released next year.

Is this correct?

  • 1
    Both the alethic (there's a chance he will be released) and the deontic (the rules as they stand allow for his release) senses of 'could' are available no matter how much the modal is stressed. Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 18:34
  • You mean it is the context that determines which of (a) and (b) is intended, and stressing the modal verb does not have much to do with this. Am I right?
    – Mr. X
    Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 18:50
  • 1
    ..........................Yes. Commented Oct 4, 2020 at 14:31
  • One last question: Do we use the "alethic" could commonly in place of "might" for predictions/speculations about the future (as in sentence (1) in the OP) or about the present (as in: A: Where is John? B: I don't know. He could be in the market.)?
    – Mr. X
    Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 10:27
  • 1
    ... Yes indeed. Probably more often than 'might'. Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 12:10

1 Answer 1


It means that the prisoner has been sentenced to a period greater than five years but is eligible to be considered for parole after six years.

Exactly what that means in terms of his sentence, the percentage of the term he must serve before being considered for parole, the actions he must avoid taking while incarcerated and the degree of rehabilitation he must demonstrate before being granted parole will all depend on the jurisdiction under which he is being held (and possibly the nature of the crime he has committed).

The reason that his release on parole is uncertain is that his actions while in gaol or his inadequate degree of rehabilitation might persuade the parole board not to grant parole.

No matter what the level of stress on the word 'could' it can be considered as synonymous with 'might' in this case.

  • I'm a little confused: Do you agree that a) and b) are two different interpretations and do not imply the same thing? If so, do you agree that "might" is not possible with interpretation a)?
    – Mr. X
    Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 16:00
  • 1
    @Mr. X You're confused yet accept the answer? Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 18:30
  • 1
    @Mr.X I thought that my final paragraph made it clear that the level of stress on the word 'could' makes no difference to the the interpretation. I'm sorry if that is not the case. In terms of the two interpretaions you give in the question the first provides the conditions under which the second one becomes possible, there really is only one set of circumstances in this case so I don't see that there is any conflict, or even any difference in the interpretations. In other circumstances this might not be true but, even then, it doesn't matter whether 'could' is stressed or not.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 23:13

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