How Could I Do That?

5425591246_77fd8411cf_bSome months ago I was asked to distinguish between How could I have missed that? and How could I miss that? Reading over my explanation, I’m not completely satisfied with the answer I gave. So, can I express my regret by saying, “How could I have been so unclear?”

I initially wrote that the perfect form of could helps us speculate about the past or express a missed opportunity:

  • I could have misunderstood some of the explanations I read. (It’s a possibility.) — This is similar to I may have misunderstood.
  • I could have been more precise. (But I wasn’t.) — This is similar to I should have been more precise.
  • I could have given more examples. (But I didn’t.) — This is similar to I should have given more examples.

Can the perfect form with could also refer to an action that was actually done or an event that truly happened? Most grammar resources limit the explanation to speculation and regret. If I ask, “How could I have been so unclear?” what am I really expressing? Possibility, right? But with what aim? I may be doubting myself, but at heart, it’s a form of criticism.

I think this is an area where we might be seeing some transition, at least in American English. It could be similar to our occasional use of the simple past in place of the present perfect. (E.g., Did you ever get stumped by a grammar question?) I enjoy grammar talks with my British colleague, and on this point she was very inclined toward How could I have missed that? I understand that form, and it makes sense when I hear it in context. But to my American ears, I don’t have a problem when people express criticism with simple How could you… statements:

  • How could you do that? You knew it was wrong.
  • How could you lie like that? And to think I believed you!
  • How could you turn your back on your friends? We needed you.

Perhaps a convenient phrase to teach students is How could you? The ellipsis nicely leaves out the bothersome dilemma over verb forms. I know. How could I take the easy way out? Right?

Comments are welcome!

Photo credit: Question Mark? (February 2011) by Tiffany Terry. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

And thank you, V.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m not certain that the “transition” I mentioned is all that new.

    Anne of Green Gables was written in 1908 by the Canadian author L.M. Montgomery. I recalled a scene when Diana Barry wonders at the behavior of your best friend. In Ch. 19 she asks, “Oh, Anne, how could you pretend not to listen to him? […] He looked right down at you.”

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