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  1. #1
    licinio is offline Junior Member
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    Default modals for past ability

    It was an almost invisible piece of card just in front of the receptionist where very few people can have seen it.

    This is the sentence I came across, and I was wondering whether "can have seen it" could be replaced by other modal verbs and if so, with what shades of meaning.

    In particular, I'm asking about:
    - where very few people could see it;
    - where very few people could have seen it.

    I expect the use of the past infinitive indicates the action didn't take place, so that it would have been theroretically possible to see the card, but nobody did. So it emphatically highlights that the writer didn't read the card.

    On a second point, I am rather more curious to find out if could is a viable option, as I would have said so myself, probably even ruling out using "can" since the talk is about the past.

    Thanks.

    Andrea

  2. #2
    birdeen's call is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: modals for past ability

    Hi, Andrea,

    "Can have done" always refers to present speculations about the past. At first, I thought your sentence was wrong, but now I think it could be OK in a good context. What is the context?

  3. #3
    azcl is offline Member
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    Smile Re: modals for past ability

    ***Not a teacher***

    where very few people could see it
    This is the most straightforward one to explain. It is a statement of what the speaker considers to be fact. It is as if the speaker was sitting watching, and knew that of all the people who came in, there were only a few who could see the notice. It could be replaced by '...where not many people were able to see it'

    Now back to the original:
    very few people can have seen it


    This is not a statement of certainty, but is saying "In my judgement, looking at the size, position and nature of the notice, I don't think many people actually saw it". So 'very few people can have seen it' is a statement of my judgement as to what happened.

    Finally:
    very few people could have seen it
    I think this is the most difficult to explain, because I think it can take a couple of meanings. One has a very similar meaning to 'very few people can have seen it' - perhaps even interchangeable.

    The other possible meaning is that very few people would have had the ability to see it. The difference between 'could have' and 'can have' in this case, is that 'could have' is referring to the ability of people to see the sign, and could be replaced by 'very few people would have been able to see it'. On the other hand, 'very few people can have seen it' means that the expectation of the the speaker is that not many people saw it. It does not draw attention to the fact that they were unable to see it, just to the fact that they did not see it (in the speaker's judgment).

    So taking a slightly different example which will hopefully clarify:
    "Very few people could have done what you did"
    ...Not many people would have had the ability/courage/confidence etc to do what you did.
    "Very few people can have done what you did"
    .....I don't think there are many who did what you did - but it may be because nobody would have wanted to, it doesn't necessarily draw attention to the fact they they were unable to.

    But as I said, I think there is an overlap between 'can have' and 'could have'.

    Ade

  4. #4
    5jj's Avatar
    5jj is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: modals for past ability

    Quote Originally Posted by licinio View Post
    It was an almost invisible piece of card just in front of the receptionist where very few people can have seen it.
    Note too that this would not have been possible as:

    *It was a very visible piece of card just in front of the receptionist where very many people can have seen it.
    In this affirmative version, only must have is possible.

    The modal implying 'logical certainty' is must in the affirmative. Logical certainty of a negative situation is expressed by can't or can plus some other method of negation. In your example few is understood as not many.
    Last edited by 5jj; 25-Jan-2011 at 19:49.

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