Usage of 'could be'


A: We survived and we still have each other.

B: Yeah, things could be worse, right?


I think that here in the sentence, could be is used for a conditional, not for a current possibility , and it is different from 'could be' in this dialogue,


A: Who is at the door?

B: He could be Tom.


In here, it just implies a current possibility, right?


What do you native English experts think? 


Thank you so much as usual and have a good day.

edited Dec 13 '12 at 13:01 Hans Contributor

3 answers


Interesting question! I have had to think about it for quite a while tonight here in Tokyo, mulling over the differences between a theoretical present possibility, which is sometimes like a guess, and a conditional statement using 'could' with present perfect, but I agree with you.


A: We survived and we still have each other.

B: Yeah, things could be worse, right?


In the above conversation, 'could' does express an implied conditional.  There is no 'if' clause but the meaning is shown in the context of the short conversation.  But here is the interesting thing: if it was re-written as a standard conditional sentence, 'could' must change to 'would':  If we hadn't survived, and if we didn't have each other, things would be worse. 


A: Who is at the door?     

B: It could be Tom.


Yes, you are right: this conversation expresses a theoretical present possibility, which is sometimes understood as a guess.  It might be Tom has the same meaning.


Hope this helps.  Let me know if you have any other questions.



link answered Dec 13 '12 at 13:57 Shawn Mooney Expert

How great and kind of you are and I was surprised that you are in Tokyo. I was there once and definitely it is way cold outside now, but the city is really great and full of interesting things , right? :)

HansDec 13 '12 at 14:02

It sure is! Where do you live?

Shawn MooneyDec 13 '12 at 14:09

People usually call us a close but distant neighborhood to Japan, so I live in Korea. We are still friends, right? Just kidding. You are my sensi :)

HansDec 13 '12 at 14:12

Great! Are you in Seoul? Are you Korean? I taught many Korean students when I was an English teacher in Vancouver, Canada and I love Koreans. :)

Shawn MooneyDec 13 '12 at 14:19

Actually, I do not live in Seoul and I just live in a small city, and then you might know how hard we Koreans learn English because of some misconceptions. I have learned a lot of things from you and great people here. Thank you as usual and have a good night:) I am going to bed now. Good night!!

HansDec 13 '12 at 14:24

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I disagree a little bit with Shawn.  It could be worse. and It might be worse. Don't have the same exact meaning, and both rely heavily on emphasis in spoken English. Modal verbs are tied to amounts of possibility, and while the two are close, they are not the same. While could be most definitely results from a nulled conditional phrase, might be does not.  It could be Tom. implies there are several people expected to come to the door, where It might be Tom. implies that Tom himself is expected, but someone else could show up. This is tied to the amount of possibility associated with each modal. 


Hope I didn't confuse you more, but I wanted to be clear that the two are not interchangeable.

link comment answered Dec 13 '12 at 17:15 agirlcalledrinn New member

agirlcalledrinn and I don't disagree at all about the diference between It could be worse and It might be worse, but the original question was not about that, nor did I specifically address the difference between those sentences in my answer.  In fact, it is precisely the difference between them that shows the difference between It could be worse and It could be Tom!  So, so far, no disagreement.  And thanks for the great grammar geek term - nulled conditional phrase - love it!


But I don't completely agree with the 2nd point.  The differences agirlcalledrinn distinguishes between It could be Tom (several people are expected to come to the door) and It might be Tom (Tom himself is expected, but someone else might show up) can be traced to some obscure grammar rules found in a few old grammar books, but in fact I don't know any native English speakers who distinguish between may, might or could with respect to the degree/amount of possibility.  For all intents and purposes, I am quite comfortable teaching that It might be Tom and It could be Tom can be used interchangeably.

link comment edited Dec 31 '12 at 14:47 Shawn Mooney Expert

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