It is easy to see how primitive warfare might sometimes have beneficial environmental effects; it is not clear how they could amount to a cause of primitive warfare.

Could you tell me, please, what grammatical tense is meant here, present or past tense?

  • 1
    Which verb are you asking about? Only verbs have tenses, and there are several verbs here. Aug 18, 2023 at 16:09
  • "might" and "could". Do they indicate past or present tense?
    – Dmitry
    Aug 18, 2023 at 16:23
  • What about conditional tense?
    – Gio
    Aug 18, 2023 at 16:33
  • Syntactically, the primary tense is Present (It is easy, it is not clear). And even the modal verb elements are essentially "present" (might have, could amount to). But semantically, it's obviously focused on the distant past (primitive warfare). Logically, that focus on the past "should" be reflected by Past Tense / Conditional Present Perfect (...might ... have had beneficial ...effects, ...how they could have amounted to a cause). It's just that native Anglophones tend to avoid "unnecessary" Perfect verb forms. Aug 18, 2023 at 16:57

1 Answer 1


It is easy to see how primitive warfare might sometimes have beneficial environmental effects; it is not clear how they could amount to a cause of primitive warfare.

I will assume you want help understanding the statement. A paraphrase:

It is possible that primitive warfare sometimes has benefits for the environment; that is not hard to imagine; but what is not clear is how those environmental benefits could cause primitive societies to engage in warfare.

The sentence is silent on whether primitive warfare refers to the warfare of current-day primitive societies or of those primitive societies from the distant past, or both. It is a generalization.

amount to a cause ... means something like "could be so compelling a motive that primitive societies would intentionally go to war for that purpose, or unintentionally by virtue of being motivated by environmental forces they did not understand or even recognize."

The sentence is questioning how the environmental benefits of war could produce war.

  • I think in principle the cited text could just as well have used the "present tense" versions (may, can) instead of the "past tense" conditional modals (might, could). The fact that the writer didn't choose to do this suggests to me he's not even thinking about "warfare" engaged in by current "primitives". Aug 18, 2023 at 17:30
  • @FumbleFingers: I would disagree. If the subject was exclusively past primitive societies, might have had and how they could have amounted to would have been the phrasings, or might well have been the phrasings.
    – TimR
    Aug 18, 2023 at 17:31
  • But per my first comment under the question, most competent writers would avoid that unnecessarily complex verb form if they thought their readers would mostly make the same assumptions as me (rather than the OP here) regarding the primary temporal focus of the text's subject matter. And I'm a native speaker, which presumably means I'm part of the writer's target audience. The OP isn't, so it's unremarkable that he should make a different assumption. Aug 18, 2023 at 17:35
  • 1
    ...I don't mean the writer would be consciously thinking that he's only concerned with past primitive societies. As you say, he's observing general (timeless) "truths". Aug 18, 2023 at 17:38
  • @FumbleFingers primitive doesn't always refer to the past. And could have had or could have amounted isn't that complex. Do you have V8 tomato juice in the UK? There was a TV ad where people who are drinking some soft drink bonk themselves on the forehead with the heel of their hand and say, "I could have had a V8!"
    – TimR
    Aug 18, 2023 at 17:39

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