Comment une île tout entière a-t-elle bien pu disparaître comme ça ?

Comment une île tout entière aurait-elle bien pu disparaître comme ça ?

How do these two sentences have different meanings, depending on whether to use “a” or “aurait”? Does my translation below fit the “a” version or the other?

How could an entire island have vanished like that?

Two additional questions:

  1. What does “bien” mean in this context?
  2. Why is “bien” placed before “pu”, not after it?
  • "bien" before a verb tend to create emphasis. Commented May 25, 2016 at 9:30
  • In the first sentence, the vanishing has happened, in the second one, it didn't.
    – MorganFR
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 9:31
  • Related: french.stackexchange.com/questions/6249/… Commented May 25, 2016 at 9:41
  • It's important to point out that the bien can be an emphatic as in: How did an entire island just disappear like that. Also, in the second sentence, the conditional like that is often: supposedly....You see if often in declarative sentences like: Elles auraient volé beaucoup d'argent ce jour-là. They allegedly or supposedly stole a lot of money that day. It is not always a "conditional" in fact.
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 17:44

3 Answers 3


The first sentence is in passé composé, it means you are talking about events that happened relatively close in the past. Here you are confronted to the vanishing of the island and wonder how it happened.

The second sentence is in conditionnel, it means you are talking about hypothetical events. Here someone told you the island vanished but as you can't think about how it could have happened you can't really believe him.

Additional questions:

"Bien" can be used for really many things in French. The construction "Comment X a-t-il bien pu faire Y ?" is an expression figée and this use of "bien" is pretty unique. The meaning is the same as "Comment X a-t-il pu faire Y ?" but it makes the sentence more emotional.

If you move "bien", you are breaking this expression figée, and so the meaning becomes different: "Comment X a-t-il pu bien faire Y ?" means that you are wondering how X proceeded to do Y well.

  • Thank you. I have a question: Do both sentences translate into the same thing, even if there are some nuances of meaning? "How could an entire island have vanished like that?" Commented May 26, 2016 at 1:54
  • I am not sure but I think a correct translation for the first sentence is: "How can an entire island have vanished like that". However "could" seems more vague in English so it may be used here too. Commented May 26, 2016 at 8:38
  • Now that you mention it, the first sentence with "a" may well translate into "How can it have vanished?", suggesting that it has actually happened, while the second with "aurait" is more like "How could it have vanished?", implying a sense of doubt. Commented May 26, 2016 at 12:27
  • That's it ! However I have seen quite often "could" being used with things that happened. Maybe it was mistakes, but maybe the usage is just less strict in English. Commented May 26, 2016 at 14:03
  • Vu la différence marquée entre les deux versions en français, cela ne serait pas bon d'employer le même mot "could" pour tous les deux. Je crois que votre proposition ("can" et "could") est en plein dans le mille. Merci. :) Commented May 27, 2016 at 2:07

The two sentences indeed have different meanings, the first one implies that you know for a fact that the island has disapeared. You would use it for example navigating your boat at the exact place the island should be, and it isn't ; when the second one only implies that you don't understand the process, you would use it for example if one of your marine come back from the said island only to tell you it isn't here anymore.

About your additional questions, bien only emphasis on the absurdity of the statement, it's a little bit like "how on earth [..] ?" As to the order of the words, I think both are correct. "Bien" after the verb is a little more oldschool.


  • to add some information about the "bien", placing it after "pu" would also be confusing as to what word it is emphasizing, either the "pu" placed before or the "disparaitre" placed right after.
    – JeanBlaire
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 10:15

“Comment a-t-il pu” is used when you talk about an action that lies in the past and which actually happened.

“Comment aurait-il pu” is used to describe an action that could have been the case but never happened.

For example: If you studied harder you would have passed the exam.

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