Could happen vs could have happened

High on grammar

Senior Member
Farsi
Hello everyone:
I came across the following sentence in chapter ten of "Dragonwings" by Laurence Yep:

"They looked shocked, as if not believing that all of this could happen to them. I could not help remembering what fine houses and mansions had once been there,and............"

I have a problem with "could happen" in this context. I believe it should be "could have happened".

Here is an example sentence that I found in a similar context, and it is from a reliable source: BBC Home:

"Later in the evening small groups of older folk wandered around not quite believing that this could have happened in their own town."

not quite believing that this could have happened

What do you guys think?

Thanks
 
Last edited:
  • PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    It may help if you understand could happen as "could be happening": it implies that the event has started, [may or may not have] finished but is still having direct consequences for them. The event and the result are seen as one unit.

    "... could have happened" can be understood as "could have happened a short/long time ago." Here, the event is considered to have finished and what is happening now is the result, not the event.

    The difference is slight and often will not be important.
     

    High on grammar

    Senior Member
    Farsi
    It may help if you understand could happen as "could be happening": it implies that the event has started, [may or may not have] finished but is still having direct consequences for them. The event and the result are seen as one unit.

    "... could have happened" can be understood as "could have happened a short/long time ago." Here, the event is considered to have finished and what is happening now is the result, not the event.

    The difference is slight and often will not be important.
    The sentence from Dragonwings is referring to an earth quake that occurred in the previous chapter. The sentence from the BBC story is referring to the bombardment of Trowbridge. The only difference is the way in which the two cities were destroyed.
     

    DonnyB

    Sixties Mod
    English UK Southern Standard English
    The sentence from Dragonwings is referring to an earth quake that occurred in the previous chapter. The sentence from the BBC story is referring to the bombardment of Trowbridge. The only difference is the way in which the two cities were destroyed.
    No, in fact I detect a slight difference in emphasis between the two.

    In the first one, Dragonwings, the inference of the sentence is the people were asking themselves "How could this be happening to us?" - they were viewing it as something which was still having an effect on their lives.

    In the second, Trowbridge, the implication is that since the bombardment had by that time ceased, the inhabitants were expressing surprise and puzzlement at a past event.
     

    High on grammar

    Senior Member
    Farsi
    No, in fact I detect a slight difference in emphasis between the two.

    In the first one, Dragonwings, the inference of the sentence is the people were asking themselves "How could this be happening to us?" - they were viewing it as something which was still having an effect on their lives.

    In the second, Trowbridge, the implication is that since the bombardment had by that time ceased, the inhabitants were expressing surprise and puzzlement at a past event.
    Thanks
     
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