explain how such a thing could <have happened><happen>

JJXR

Senior Member
Russian
Hello to all,

Thanks for reading my post.


Context:

Something bad happened. Two people are talking. One person is asking the other how it was possible for that bad thing to happen at all.

Sample sentence:

Can you explain to me how such a thing could <have happened><happen> at all?

Question:

Can both have happened and happen be used in the sample sentence to refer to what happened in the past?


Thanks a lot for any comments, corrections or suggestions!

Regards,
JJXR
 
  • lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Yes, you can use either, with slightly different nuances, e.g. :

    Can you explain to me how such a thing could have happened at all? — how did that [specific] event come about?

    Can you explain to me how such a thing could happen at all? — how can that kind of event ever happen?
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    Hi, I have a similar sentence to ask about:
    ... and Jack was standing there, stunned and stupid, trying to understand how a thing like this could have happened. (from The Shining)
    I wonder if we can use "could have happened" and "could happen" interchangeably here with the same nuances in #2? If we can, then I don't know why in this sentence we can't say "could I have made" and "could I make" interchangeably?
    "How could I have made a son like that, Ned?" (from Game of Thrones)
    Thank you for any help.
     

    Hermione Golightly

    Senior Member
    British English
    They can't always be used interchangably. Using have made suggests that he did make a son like that. It's context dependent like almost everything.
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    They can't always be used interchangeably. Using have made suggests that he did make a son like that. It's context dependent like almost everything.
    Thank you. I asked about "how could I have made a son like that" previously and a native speaker told me it is because "make a son" is an one-off event which has finished in the past rather than a continuing state (i.e How could I be/have been so blind about...) that we should use "how could I have made a son". So for the same reason, I think in the The Shining example, we should also stick to "could have happened", right?
    how could I have been..
     
    Last edited:

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    As Hermione says, the context tells you whether it's about a completed action or a future action.

    If someone behaves badly towards another person, we could say to them How could you do such a thing? or How could you have done such a thing?
    The use of could you have done suggests that it is a one-off event, but otherwise there is little difference.
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    Thank you, e2efour. I see. So if the context shows it's about a completed action or a one-off action, we should say "How could you have done such a thing"; if it's about a future action, we use "How could you do such a thing"; if the context doesn't show whether it's about a completed action or a future action, we use either of them.
    Right?
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    The reply given by lingobingo in #2 covers this.
    Could you do (with the right context) can refer to the future or the past.
    Oh, I see. Thank you again. So if the context shows it's about a completed action or a one-off action, we should stick to "How could you have done such a thing", not "How could you do such a thing", right?
    By the way, is the choice between "How could you have done" and "How could you do ..." influenced by the verb verb type (i.e "done/do" is dynamic or stative)?
     

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    How could you have known/How could you know that? is an example using a static verb.
    Another example: How could you lie there/How could you have lain there without saying anything?

    So I don't think that the difference is relevant.
     
    Last edited:

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    OK. I see. Thank you. Then what about this question: if the context shows it's about a completed past one-off action, we should stick to "How could you have done such a thing", not "How could you do such a thing", right? Because I was told we can say "how could I have made a son like that" but not "how could I make a son like that" because it is a completed past one-off action (i.e The act of creating his son has happened).
     

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Could can mean was able to, so why can't you say How could I make:confused: produce a son like that?
    There are two interpretations of could, one for the past and one for the present/future.
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    Could can mean was able to, so why can't you say How could I make:confused: produce a son like that?
    There are two interpretations of could, one for the past and one for the present/future.
    This is what another two native speakers told me:
    If you see "making a son" as a one-off thing at the point of conception you should use the first one (could have made).
    If you see it as a longer process you might prefer your new version (could make).
    by suzi br
    on another forum:
    The act of creating his son has happened - obviously, as he already has been born! Therefore you cannot use the present conditional tense ('could I make') as you're referring to a past action.
    From their explanations I deduce that if the context shows it's about a completed past one-off action, we should stick to "How could you have done such a thing", not "How could you do such a thing".
     

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    What you seem to be saying is that if someone calls you a fool, you should not say How could you say that?, but How could you have said that?

    I could say either.
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    What you seem to be saying is that if someone calls you a fool, you should not say How could you say that?, but How could you have said that?

    I could say either.
    Thank you. Now I feel confused now.:( But the only thing I am sure about is it's never wrong to say "How could someone have done X" when we talked about past actions.
     
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