Why couldn't I <have killed> <kill> that dragon?

JungKim

Senior Member
Korean
The movie 'How to Train Your Dragon' has this dialogue:
Astrid:
You must feel horrible. You've lost everything; your father, your tribe, your best friend...

Hiccup:
Thank you for summing that up. [sadly] Why couldn't I have killed that dragon when I found him in the woods?
Context: Hiccup "lost everything" because he failed to kill the dragon.

In the last sentence, I wonder why he used 'couldn't have killed' instead of 'couldn't kill'.
(1) Why couldn't I have killed that dragon when I found him in the woods? [original]
(2) Why couldn't I kill that dragon when I found him in the woods?
 
  • Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    It implies that he made the choice not to kill the dragon. If he said “couldn’t kill” it means that he tried and failed.
     

    JungKim

    Senior Member
    Korean
    It implies that he made the choice not to kill the dragon. If he said “couldn’t kill” it means that he tried and failed.
    If you chose not to kill a chicken simply because you felt sorry for the chicken (so you didn't even try to kill it), can you not say "I couldn't kill it"?
     

    Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    It depends on the context : it implies that you wanted to kill the chicken, but couldn’t bring yourself to do so.
     

    Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    There is a difference in nuance. Why couldn’t I have emphasises the wish to have made a different choice, whereas why couldn’t I emphasises the self-analysis about what made him feel sorry for the dragon.
     

    JungKim

    Senior Member
    Korean
    Here's the first paragraph of the movie plot in Wikipedia:
    The Viking village of Berk, located on a remote island, is attacked frequently by dragons, which take livestock and damage property. Hiccup, the awkward fifteen-year-old son of the village chieftain, Stoick the Vast, is deemed too scrawny and weak to fight the dragons, so he instead creates mechanical devices under his apprenticeship with Gobber, the village blacksmith, though Hiccup's inventions often backfire. During one attack, Hiccup uses a bolas launcher to shoot down a Night Fury, a dangerous and rare dragon of which little is known, but no one believes him, so he searches for the fallen dragon on his own. He finds the dragon in the forest, tangled in his net, but cannot bring himself to kill it, and instead sets it free.
    Cross-posted
     

    thetazuo

    Senior Member
    Chinese - China
    Hi, JungKim.
    I couldn’t have killed that dragon.
    (I would not have been able to do it because of lack of the appropriate talent or skill.)
    (I would not have been capable of doing it (because of my personal characteristics)).

    I couldn’t kill that dragon.
    (I failed to do it when I tried)
    Or (I wouldn’t be able to do it if I tried) —> but this is not the meaning here since the reference is past time in your example, not present.

    Hope this makes sense. :)
     
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    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    Why couldn't I have killed that dragon when I found him in the woods?
    This is lamenting the fact that he didn't do this action, and as a result he lost everything.

    This is not a comment about what happened back then. It is not questioning the reason he "couldn't kill".

    It is common in English to express regret about past decisions by saying "Why couldn't I have done that?"
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I agree with doji.

    "Why couldn't I have killed that dragon?" is close in meaning to "If only I had killed that dragon!"
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I suppose the first problem with this sentence is to interpret the rhetorical question.

    1a Why do I love her so much? = 1b There is no rational reason to love her so much = 1c I am a fool to love her so much.

    On the same thinking:

    2a Why could I not have killed the dragon? = 2b There is no reason why I could not have killed the dragon (if I had been motivated to do so): 2c I had the opportunity. There might be a bit of an idiomatic jump from here to the implication 2d I was a fool not to take opportunity; but as example 1 illustrates, implication is an important element of rhetorical questions (or emotive outbusts in general).
     
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    lingobingo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    This is lamenting the fact that he didn't do this action …

    It is common in English to express regret about past decisions by saying "Why couldn't I have done that?"
    :thumbsup: :thumbsup: Exactly. In this instance couldn’t/couldn’t have has nothing to do with being incapable of doing something. It’s just a way of beating yourself up about having blown the only chance you had of doing it.


    Why couldn't I have killed that dragon when I found him in the woods?
    =
    Why on earth didn’t I just kill the damned dragon when I had the chance!
     

    Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    If by possible you mean interchangeable then we can’t really say without watching the movie and trying to judge objectively whether we would interpret it in exactly the same way. To me it is less idiomatic if what is intended is « I should have killed the dragon ».
     

    JungKim

    Senior Member
    Korean
    Is it correct to say that "couldn't kill" in (2) means "was not able to kill" (i.e., past inability) but that "couldn't have killed" in (1) has nothing to do with past inability?
     
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    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    “Could have” can have an “ability” nuance when used in conditionals, or the nuance can be absent; and I think we perceive these as separate meanings.
    1 “If you had had lots of muscles, you could have opened that tin of beans”
    2 “If I had bought a lottery ticket I could/might have won a million pounds”.
    In sense 2, could and might are synonyms.
     
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    Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    Is it correct to say that "couldn't kill" in (2) means "was not able to kill" (i.e., past inability) but that "couldn't have killed" in (1) has nothing to do with past inability?
    In your particular example I would say that it is correct, but note that this is not a general rule : it depends entirely on the context.
     

    JungKim

    Senior Member
    Korean
    Sorry for this belated response. I needed some time to organize my thoughts. :)
    If I'm not mistaken, there seems to be a consensus among native speakers in this thread that couldn't have killed in (1) doesn't mean ability, as follows:
    Why couldn’t I have emphasises the wish to have made a different choice, whereas why couldn’t I emphasises the self-analysis about what made him feel sorry for the dragon.
    This is lamenting the fact that he didn't do this action, and as a result he lost everything.

    This is not a comment about what happened back then. It is not questioning the reason he "couldn't kill".

    It is common in English to express regret about past decisions by saying "Why couldn't I have done that?"
    I agree with doji.

    "Why couldn't I have killed that dragon?" is close in meaning to "If only I had killed that dragon!"
    Is it correct to say that "couldn't kill" in (2) means "was not able to kill" (i.e., past inability) but that "couldn't have killed" in (1) has nothing to do with past inability?
    In your particular example I would say that it is correct...
    But I really can't wrap my head around how to interpret (1) without an ability meaning.
    If couldn't have killed in (1) doesn't mean ability, shouldn't it mean 'possibility'? But I don't know how to interpret (1) as meaning possibility.

    Moreover, if you look at the above linked script, Hiccup switches from couldn't to wouldn't, because he feels that the latter more aptly describes his failing to kill the dragon. That is, he feels that it was his intentional choice rather than his inability that prevented him from killing the dragon. And all this means, I think, that using couldn't have killed in (1) is construed to mean ability.

    As for Loob's paraphrase in post #10, therefore, if the intended meaning were "If only I had killed that dragon!", shouldn't Hiccup have said, Why didn't I kill that dragon? instead of Why couldn't I have killed that dragon? ? And isn't Why couldn't I have killed that dragon? closer in meaning to "If only I could have killed that dragon!" than to "If only I had killed that dragon!"?
     

    Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    Please refer to my original answer in post 2. You are getting completely hung up on pinning a label on this, whereas native speakers simply understand without having to place it in a category. Except for those of us who participate in discussions such as occur on this forum or who teach foreigners, we don’t even know these labels.
     

    Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    Why wouldn’t I have is simply not appropriate to this situation (without veering too far off-topic, we use this to express the idea that we did in fact do something).
    Perhaps it will be easier for you if you consider it to be a « moral ability » rather than a decision.
     

    JungKim

    Senior Member
    Korean
    Why wouldn’t I have is simply not appropriate to this situation (without veering too far off-topic, we use this to express the idea that we did in fact do something).
    But, as I pointed out earlier, Hiccup changed couldn't to wouldn't in the same scene to claim that he intentionally decided not to kill the dragon.

    Perhaps it will be easier for you if you consider it to be a « moral ability » rather than a decision.
    Okay. Let's just say for a moment that couldn't have killed does express "moral ability".
    Then, can't you express the same "moral ability" by couldn't kill?
     

    Glasguensis

    Signal Modulation
    English - Scotland
    But, as I pointed out earlier, Hiccup changed couldn't to wouldn't in the same scene to claim that he intentionally decided not to kill the dragon.
    Hiccup switches to « wouldn’t », not « wouldn’t have ». « Wouldn’t » expresses a universal truth and does not refer to the specific incident in the past.

    Okay. Let's just say for a moment that couldn't have killed does express "moral ability".
    Then, can't you express the same "moral ability" by couldn't kill?
    Hiccup could use « couldn’t kill » to express this moral ability as a universal truth, but in the context of the original sentence we regard it as a practical ability as I explained in my first reply.
     
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