Das könnte jeder gewesen sein.

English Translation

It could have been anyone.

Hello German speakers!

ChatGPT also gives “Das hätte jeder sein können.”

Which version would you say is more common, especially in spoken German?

I’d say definitely “Das könnte jeder gewesen sein.

In my opinion, “Das hätte jeder (gewesen) sein können.” has a different meaning.

I’m no German teacher, just a regular German guy, so I don’t know the proper words for the grammar.

To my mind, the ChatGPT suggestion is one level deeper, if you think of the movie Inception.

  • First level: You talk about what could have been, by turning “können” into “könnte”.
  • Second level: Then you go another level deeper into “what could have been in a parallel universe” by turning “könnte” into “hätte … können”.

To me it seems like so:

“Das könnte jeder gewesen sein.”

“Who stole my bicycle?” “I don’t know, it could have been anyone in this town.”

You are looking from the present moment to the past.

Now, consider this sentence:

“Das hätte jeder (gewesen) sein können.”

Imagine someone asks Mozart or Picasso: “Oh, why are you so good?” And Mozard/Picasso replies, “Anyone could have been this good, had they just practiced for 10 hours a day as I did. But they didn’t practice, so they didn’t become as good.”

To me, it seems like talking about how the future could have been different, would the past have been different.

Long answer, and maybe it’s just me. But to me, it seems as if these two sentences are on two different levels of “could have been”.

To answer your question (again) and come back to the topic: I’d definitely say “Das könnte jeder gewesen sein.”

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English Translation

It could have been anyone.

Hello @davidculley,

I didn’t think about it this way, but I see what you mean, kind of :slight_smile:

For now and until I really understand how it all works, I will stick to “level 1” könnte + gewesen sein.

I am very interested in learning German as it is spoken and I’m wondering if there could be a “level 0”, with just “könnte” and no “gewesen”.

I mean, if we take the “Who stole my bicycle?” example, I could see myself replying something like “I don’t know, (it) could be anyone.”

Would something similar be correct in German? Could we answer the question “Wer hat mein Fahrrad gestohlen?” with something like “(Ich) weiß es nicht, (es) könnte jeder haben” or even with a shrug and just “könnte jeder haben” ?

Thank you for your help!

If you want a short “Ich weiß es nicht”, then use “Weiß nich’.” That’s pretty much like “dunno”.

Yes, you could omit the “es”, but I think most people would shorten it to just an 's sound: “skönnte”.

Careful, in your “könnte jeder haben” suggestion, “haben” loses its function as the auxiliary verb, and is most likely understood as the possession meaning of “haben” (-> “anyone could have my bike in their possession”). In german you don’t omit the main verb but leave the auxiliary in. So “Anyone could’ve” doesn’t literally translate to german like that.

So, I don’t think “Könnte jeder gewesen sein” could be shortened much further. Maybe “Könnte jeder sein” works, even though it doesn’t fully match the question.

Your post contains multiple questions and I try to answer them question by question.

No, you must be careful. You are mixing present and past here.

Your example would work, if you ask about the present. For example:

“Who in this room is the liar/traitor/murderer?” “Could be anyone / (Das) könnte jeder sein.”

But because “Who stole my bike?” is talking about the past, you’d also need the past, as in “Das könnte jeder gewesen sein.” (Alternatively: “Das könnte jeder getan haben.”) You cannot ask “Who stole it?” and answer with “Das könnte jeder sein.” (or similar, with the verb “do” instead of “be”: you cannot say “Das könnte jeder tun.” instead of “Das könnte jeder getan haben.”)

This is very similar to English. You wouldn’t really answer the question “Who stole it?” with “It could be anyone.” You would rather answer with “It could have been anyone.”

Kind of. You’re not answering the question that was asked, but another (unspoken) question, which is why it works. You’re not answering “Who stole it?” but instead “Who could have it now?”. This is not a bad thing, in conversations this happens all the time. Again, your’re mixing present and past here, but this time it is allowed, because you are no longer answering the question that asked about the past (“Who stole it?”) but the question that asks about the present (“Who do you think has it?”). Therefore, in this case you can say “Es könnte jeder haben” or the even shorter “Könnte jeder haben.”

Coming back to the first question: If you ask “Who is the thief?” rather than “Who stole it?”, then you can answer with your level 0 answer “Das könnte jeder sein.” Because now the question and answer are in the same time (present).

Very interesting point, thanks!

I guess that pretty much confirms what @pitti42 was saying :slight_smile:

It’s funny, I just came across this example:

“Ich wusste nicht, dass du eine Schwester hast.”

and I was thinking “Oh…Interesting, the past tense for haben is not used in this case”.

The sequence of tenses is definitely something I’m struggling with!

Thank you guys for your input, helps a lot!

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Oh yes. You and I might have talked about different things. But essentially, we all confirmed each other, yes, and were looking at the same medal, just from different sides :slight_smile: @pitti42 made a good point (we answered around the same time, so I didn’t see his/her post before I posted mine). To be clear, I’ll briefly summarize everything.

These two sentences mean two different things:

  • Das könnte jeder haben.
  • Das könnte jeder getan haben.

In the first sentence, “haben” is the main verb and means “to own it, to have it in your possession”. As in “Anyone could possess it right now.” I was talking about this meaning in my other answer.

In the second sentence, “haben” is just there to support “getan”, which is a variant of “tun”, which means “to do”. As in “Anyone could have done/stolen it.” You were originally asking about this meaning.

As to why we confused these two meanings, see @pitti42 's answer.

It’s because the sister is still alive :wink: The sentence “Ich wusste nicht, dass du eine Schwester hattest” would imply that she is already dead.

You’re welcome :slight_smile:

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Actually, regarding my “könnte jeder haben” proposition, when @pitti42 says that in this case “haben loses its function as the auxiliary verb, and is most likely understood as the possession meaning” and you say that in this case my version is allowed, but only because I’m really answering a different question "Who could have it now?”, I think you and @pitti42 are both saying pretty much the same thing, using different words.

Right, I think “Das könnte jeder getan haben”, was the sentence/meaning I was actually looking for.

Right :slight_smile: I thought maybe that was the reason, which brings up even more questions… But I don’t want to derail this thread so I might comment on the "“Ich wusste nicht, dass du eine Schwester hast.” example instead.

Thanks again for the detailed explanation!