if he had studied harder, he could have passed the exam.

  • SevenDays

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Hi,

    In the following sentence, is "could" ambiguous?

    If he had studied harder, he could have passed the exam.

    I'd appreciate your help.
    The ambiguity is not in "could." The ambiguity is in the main clause; "could have passed the exam" might mean that,

    1. he failed the exam (because he didn't study harder)
    2. he didn't take the exam (because he didn't study harder)

    The ambiguity is in an isolated sentence. The ambiguity vanishes in context.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    US English
    As post #2 says, "could" means "would have been able to".

    1. If he had studied harder, he would have passed the exam.

    2. If he had studied harder, he could have passed the exam.
    2a. If he had studied harder, he would have been able to pass the exam.
     

    raymondaliasapollyon

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    As post #2 says, "could" means "would have been able to".

    1. If he had studied harder, he would have passed the exam.

    2. If he had studied harder, he could have passed the exam.
    2a. If he had studied harder, he would have been able to pass the exam.

    I'm wondering whether "he could have passed the exam" could mean "it would have been possible for him to pass the exam."
     

    SevenDays

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    I'm wondering whether "he could have passed the exam" could mean "it would have been possible for him to pass the exam."
    Sure, why not? Since both "could" and "would" refer to a judgment/conclusion on the part of the speaker, both modal verbs refer to epistemic modality. If, however, what you have in mind is "ability" (studying harder gives the ability to pass the exam), then "could" shows its particular meaning of "ability." Modal verbs are always speaker-dependent, so it'll be up to the speaker to determine which modal verb he uses (but I don't think the choice is terribly important).
     

    raymondaliasapollyon

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    When I first saw "If he had studied harder, he could have passed the exam." I contemplated the two meanings of "could."
    However, I wondered why we would ever need to talk about ability at all in this case. What really matters is whether or not the person passed, or would have passed, the exam. This consideration rules out the ability-related reading on my part, in favor of the possibility-related reading.

    In other words, even the following, which is grammatically valid and clear, might seem odd:

    If he had studied harder, he would have been able to pass the exam.
     
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    dojibear

    Senior Member
    US English
    This consideration rules out
    Sometimes the listener's logic doesn't match the speaker's thinking. You can't assume that a sentence means what YOU would mean, or does not mean what YOU would not mean.

    I wondered why we would ever need to talk about ability at all in this case.
    Why would people ever need to talk about fish being wet? And yet people do. They say this.
     

    raymondaliasapollyon

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    I suspect that my consideration is shared by lingobingo, who describes the sentence as nonsensical.

    If a different verb phrase, say "solve this mathematical problem," had been used instead, the sentence might have made sense to him on the ability-related reading:


    If he had studied harder, he could have solved this mathematical problem.
     
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