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before we could round them

 
 
WBYeats
 
Reply Wed 24 Jul, 2013 09:00 am
Part of a story: (pardon my quoting long, because the tense might depend on a broad context)

"She is very fast," he said. "I doubt if we shall catch her."

"We must catch her!" cried Holmes between his teeth. "Heap it on, stokers! Make her do all she can! If we burn the boat we must have them!"

We were fairly after her now. The furnaces roared, and the powerful engines whizzed and clanked like a great metallic heart. Her sharp, steep prow cut through the still river-water and sent two rolling waves to right and to left of us. With every throb of the engines we sprang and quivered like a living thing. One great yellow lantern in our bows threw a long, flickering funnel of light in front of us. Right ahead a dark blur upon the water showed where the Aurora lay, and the swirl of white foam behind her spoke of the pace at which she was going. We flashed past barges, steamers, merchant-vessels, in and out, behind this one and round the other. Voices hailed us out of the darkness, but still the Aurora thundered on, and still we followed close upon her track.

"Pile it on, men, pile it on!" cried Holmes, looking down into the engine-room, while the fierce glow from below beat upon his eager, aquiline face. "Get every pound of steam you can."

"I think we gain a little," said Jones with his eyes on the Aurora.

"I am sure of it," said I. "We shall be up with her in a very few minutes."

At that moment, however, as our evil fate would have it, a tug with three barges in tow blundered in between us. It was only by putting our helm hard down that we avoided a collision, and before we could round them and recover our way the Aurora had gained a good two hundred yards. She was still, however, well in view, and the murky, uncertain twilight was settling into a clear, starlit night.
================================

In English, referring to a past particular situation to mean ability and using a positive sentence, we should use WAS/WERE ABLE TO DO, not COULD DO; but why does the writer use COULD? Isn't it a past particular situation?

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InfraBlue
 
  1  
Reply Wed 24 Jul, 2013 10:17 am
Could is the past tense of can used in that sentence to indicate past possibilty.
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mark noble
 
  1  
Reply Wed 24 Jul, 2013 04:56 pm
@WBYeats,
No.
I 'could' explain why, but wont
0 Replies
 
JTT
 
  1  
Reply Wed 24 Jul, 2013 06:04 pm
@WBYeats,
At that moment, however, as our evil fate would [not past] have it, a tug with three barges in tow blundered in between us. It was only by putting our helm hard down that we avoided a collision, and before we [could perform two future actions], one, round them and two, recover our way, the Aurora had gained a good two hundred yards.

========

As I was sitting thinking about this, ...

at that moment, as my evil fate would have it, a leak developed on my bathroom sink. It was only by putting my mouse down hard and rushing to the bathroom that I avoided a flood, and before I could get to InfraBlue's posting to explain to him his errors in analyzing this, fifteen minutes had passed.

The underlined portion paraphrased;

and before I could perform [OR before it was possible for me to perform] two future actions, one, of going to InfraBlue's posting, and two, explaining to him his errors in analyzing this, fifteen minutes had passed.

At that moment, [something happened]

...

and before we could/were able to complete two actions that we had not yet completed, something else happened.

===================

"Pile it on, men, pile it on!" cried Holmes, looking down into the engine-room, while the fierce glow from below beat upon his eager, aquiline face. "Get every pound of steam you can."

"I think we gain a little," said Jones with his eyes on the Aurora.

"I am sure of it," said I. "We shall be up with her in a very few minutes."

At that moment, however, as our evil fate would have it, a tug with three barges in tow blundered in between us. It was only by putting our helm hard down that we avoided a collision. Holmes cried out, "Before we can round them and recover our way the Aurora will have gained a good two hundred yards."
WBYeats
 
  1  
Reply Wed 24 Jul, 2013 09:18 pm
@JTT,
Thank you, JTT. This is one of those answers in which I see the beauty of grammatical explanation.
0 Replies
 
 

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