For the past several weeks, the Vancouver Art Gallery has been hosting an exhibit by the Japanese fine artist Takashi Murakami (no relation to either novelist Ryu or Haruki), and it’s truly a show worth seeing. Last week, I attended this exhibit, and thought it was fascinating. And while I’m certainly no expert, I do enjoy a nice art exhibition as much as anybody, especially when it gives me an opportunity to address another of my favorite interests–ENGLISH WEIRDNESS.
I hate to say it, but the English language is packed with anomalous rules and their exceptions, inexplicably figurative idiomatic expressions, one-off irregularities, and other strange bits and pieces of communication that seem to defy either logic or common sense, but which nonetheless do communicate, well, something.
So, let’s get after it.
What if, on a dreary Vancouver Monday in February, a colleague (C) asks me the following question:
C: “Good morning Paul, what did you get up to on the weekend?”
If I were a language learner, I might answer this way:
P: “Well, I did something very interesting. Last weekend, I could see the Takashi Murakami art exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery!”
My friend and colleague would look at me in amazement. I’d figure they must be impressed with my familiarity with contemporary art. But no, wait, that look on their faces isn’t admiration, it’s….confusion.
My colleague would then have no choice but to say:
Q: “So….did you see the art exhibit? Or did you not see it?”
What the heck is going on here? I’d say to myself. Why were they not clear about what I did on the weekend? I thought I had made myself very clear. Or had I?
Now, although I actually did in fact go to the art exhibit, this conversation never actually took place. It’s just a hypothetical example. A native speaker with decent command of English wouldn’t typically say, “Last weekend, I could see the Takashi Murakami art exhibit…”
This is, however, a very common type of grammatically incorrect expression I hear among English learners. It’s common, but make no mistake students, this is ENGLISH WEIRDNESS.
For instance, they often tell me proudly after a good exam score,
“Teacher Paul, last week I could pass the TOEFL exam!” or,
“Teacher Paul, I could visit Whistler and ski.”
In addition, once they leave Vancouver and return home, if I keep in touch with them on Facebook, they often write a post showing photos of their delightful experience in Vancouver, and write,
“When I was in Vancouver studying English, I could meet many friends and I could share many nice memories.”
To all of these statements, the only suitable reply is, “Great! So, did you or didn’t you?”
One of the goals of communicating in any language is clarity, the ability to communicate exactly what you think with no misunderstanding possible on the part of your interlocutor, or friend. Unfortunately, these expressions fail to provide this clarity. Instead, they communicate ambiguity, or in other words, two possible interpretations. This leaves your listener confused. If that is your goal, you can stop reading here, and take satisfaction knowing you’ve thoroughly baffled your amigo. But if this wasn’t your goal, if you actually want your friend to understand you (and be impressed that you have an appreciation for contemporary fine art), then read on, dear student.
What is happening here is a misuse of the modal “could.” Students, as I said, make this error consistently. But this particular misuse of “could” is not entirely their fault. I’ve given it a bit of research, and I’ve discovered that virtually no grammar reference books, school textbooks, or erstwhile Youtube grammarians cover this very specific and problematic (mis)usage of the modal “could” with appropriate depth.
So, let’s take a closer look at Modal Usage and the Weirdness of Could, shall we?
As with all grammar points, we’ll look at it from three perspectives: form, meaning, and use. Let’s start with the basic stuff. Using modals requires this structure:
form: SUBJECT + modal + VERB (always base form) + OBJECT
As far as the modals themselves go, you can choose any modal, and it will adjust the meaning of the base form verb that follows it. For a comprehensive list of modals, see the attached colour chart below. This structure produces such sentences as:
“I will visit my friend on Friday night.”
“You had better study tonight. We have a test tomorrow.”
“Bob should work harder. He’s so lazy.”
“I might go to the concert tomorrow night.”
“I can finally afford to buy a new computer.”
“Could you explain modals to me, teacher?” (if you had the ability to)
So far, this should all look pretty familiar, right? Notice how the last two use the modal can, and its past and/or conditional form, could, to express the idea of “ability.”
This should also look pretty familiar and pretty clear, right? Good. So far, ‘could’ doesn’t seem to pose us any problems. However, if we use it in the past tense, we discover the problem.
So let’s look at one of the earlier examples:
“Last week I could pass the TOEFL exam.”
Here, we see that the person is clearly referring to the past tense, by using the adverbial “Last week.” And, we know that in English, the tense is expressed by the change in the verb form. In other words, it is the verb’s job, not the modal’s, to express tense. Yet here, the verb is in base form, not past tense. Maybe the student believes because they are using the modal ‘could’, which is also the past form of ‘can,’ they have expressed past tense clearly. They have not. It is not the modal’s job to express past tense. It is the verb’s job! The modals ‘can’ or ‘could’ express ability only, not tense. This means that in this sentence, it is not clear whether or not something actually happened.
If for example, this student actually did do well on the exam, then the single positive action of them passing the exam actually happened. So why aren’t they simply telling us that they ‘passed” the exam? That would clearly express that the action did in fact happen in the past. 100% happened. Usually when I ask the student why they need ‘could’, they tell me, “Because Teacher Paul, it means ability.” Yes, I say, it means ability, but do we need it? What if we simply said, “Last week, I passed the exam?” Do we know what happened? Yes, you passed. Now then, did you have the “ability”? Of course you did! You would never pass the exam if you had no ability. In this case then, the word “could” is redundant if we use the verb in its proper past tense form. Anything that occured in the past also expresses that ability was involved in the successful, positive completion of that single action, right? So let’s try those sentences again.
“Teacher Paul, last week I passed my exam!”
“When I was in Vancouver studying English, I met many friends and share many nice memories.”
Clearly, you had the ability to both pass and meet, so this is all you need to say. And it is very clear that these single positive action happened in the past. So, these sentences are 100% correct and clear English. Using “Could + base form verb” results only in ENGLISH WEIRDNESS!!!!!
So don’t do it.
But teacher Paul, someone will say, our textbook says that we can use the modal ‘could’ in past tense. It gives us the example,
“Last week, I couldn’t pass my exam.”
Ah! I say, well, that is in the negative form, isn’t it? Here, the verb has no obligation to be in past tense form. Why not, you say? Because the action never happened. In a negative sentence, you are expressing that something could not happen, and therefore never did. This means the verb doesn’t need to be inflected, or changed, into its past tense form. Cool huh?
So, from this we can establish a general rule to govern this slippery ENGLISH WEIRDNESS.
RULE: If you want to express a single, positive action in the past, never use ‘could’.
Ah, but what about when my textbook says “When I was a child, I could play soccer with my friends anytime I wanted.”
Well, this is fine. Why teacher? you say. Look closely. This is not referring to a single positive action in the past. How many times did you play soccer then? It seems like you’re saying you played a lot, like every day, or at least whenever you wanted to. In such a case, you are not expressing a single action but rather, an ongoing repeated ability. That’s different.
However, there are times when it is important to emphasize ability; in cases, for instance, when the ability has changed, resulting in the successful, positive completion of an action in the past. For example, what if you had tried for several months to pass the TOEFL exam, but each time you failed. Then, you began meeting Teacher Paul for private tutoring sessions. We had many interesting and fun discussions, and you did a lot of grammar practice. You practiced using all sorts of different expressions. Finally, after weeks of practice and preparation, you took the TOEFL exam once again. And you passed. What should you say? Remember, we still can’t say, “I could pass the TOEFL exam,” or we’ll express an ambiguous, or possible double meaning.
Instead, use the phrasal modal, “was able to“. This is very useful because it clearly contains a verb in past tense (“was”) and a clear expression of ability (“able to”). This results in the following:
“Last week, I was finally able to pass the TOEFL exam.”
This is the correct way to express a positive, single action in the past tense.
I hope this clarifies this ENGLISH WEIRDNESS. Now, back to my original story. I know what to say when my colleague asks me what I did on the weekend.
“Last weekend, I saw the Takashi Murakami exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery.”
Did I have the ability to see it? Take a look at the photos below and judge for yourself. I think it’s pretty clear I did. The exhibit, by the way, was spectacular, and I highly recommend you see it while you have the chance. Her’s a few photos of Takashi Murkami’s surreal and beautiful creations.
For more on this, check out the accompanying video: