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Hi all,

I'm really having hard time understanding these English modals.

This time I have a question about the difference in meaning between 'might have' and 'could have'

As far as I know 'might have' has two meanings

A: I might have dropped it somewhere

=It is possible that I dropped it somewhere

B: You might have met him if you'd been there

=It is possible that you would have met him...

If you changed 'might have' to 'could have' in B, how would the meaning of the sentence be different?

A paraphrase would be something like this(according to my grammar book): It would have been possible for you to meet him if you'd been there

In what context would you use 'could have' over 'might have'?

And lastly could you explain the difference in meaning in the following example?

If you had come to me sooner, I might have/could have cured you.
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jooneyWhen you change 'might have' to 'would have'
These are different.

might have can mean maybe would have, but it can't mean (certainly) would have.

CJ
Comments  
Hello Jooney,

You are correct in understanding that 'might have' usually has the meaning that some event is possible. In sentence B "You might have met him if you'd been there" also implies that it would've been possible to have met him if you'd been there, but then again you just as likely might not have met him. In this meaning the speaker is not placing any judgement on the fact that the person being spoken to was not in attendance, it is a simple and passive statement regarding what was possible. Say there referred to a big party with over 500 attendees, it easy to understand why the outcome is neither expected nor implied.

Now when you change the 'might have' to 'could have' it changes meaning to not only have been possible, but it also places more emphasis on the last part of the sentence which is the fact that you weren't there. So the attitude is implied that is a bit chastising to the fact that you were not in attendance and it is your own fault.

And in spoken english the emphasis will be on the word could, so it is spoken in a higher tone than the other words

"You could have (or contracted to could've) met him if you'd been there".

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Here is a dialogue to explain it in usage (vernacular American English included):

Shelly: Hey Kelly, where were you last night? Weren't you gonna go to John's party?

Kelly: Yeah, I was gonna go but forgot I had a paper due for my English Composition class. I was really hoping to meet his brother Kevin, everyone says he's so cute.

Shelly: What a bummer. Yeah, I got to meet Kevin. Not only is he cute but a really nice guy to boot.

Kelly: I wish I could've met him. It feels like all I do anymore is study and go to class.

Shelly: Well you could've met him if you'd gone.

Kelly: I know! Well, if he throws another party I might have to bite the bullet and put my studying aside.

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Might have is also quite often used when something has been misplaced and possibly lost (not just material things but also chances or opportunities) but there is still the possibility or chance that this is not the case.

For instance:

1. I might have left my keys on the bureau. = It's possible that the keys were left on the bureau but they might be elsewhere too.

2. I think I might have failed my math test. = I am not sure but it is a possibility that I failed my math test.

Could've would not be used by a native speaker in these cases. But may well be used in a response from the listener when they have an explanation for why these events might have happened.

Replies

1. Well, you could've made it to the movie on time if you weren't always so forgetful!

2. You could've passed if you just committed more time to your studies!

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So in summary, Might Have conveys that something is possible but not at all definite; it might be or it might not be the case. Could Have implies that had something been done differently there would've been a different outcome.

I hope this helps and wasn't too wordy!
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Thank you very much for the answer.

I have an another question though.

When you change 'might have' to 'would have', Is there any change in the meaning of the sentence?
 CalifJim's reply was promoted to an answer.
Hi, my name is Rakhym and I had got the same problem in understanding about modal verbs untill I read your correspondence.
Could you help me with meanings in following examples?
1) There may well be severe flooding in the next few days.
2) There could well be severe flooding in the next few days.
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Both the sentences have the same meaning with the following:
It is highly probable that there will be severe flooding in the next few days.

But you should know the more highly placed modal verb you use in the followings, the more possibility you have.
would
may
might = could