I am trying to figure out what is the tense used in the following sentence:

"Cet événement climatique pourrait avoir causé de graves conséquences."

A student of mine used this form instead of "...aurait pu causer...".

Main question: What is this tense called?

Secondary question: his sentence seems grammatically correct to me, although his proposition changes the meaning (in his sentence, we don't know whether the event had consequences or not). What do you think?

  • Welcome to French Language SE! I think there is another question hidden in here: do "pourrait avoir causé" and "aurait pu causer" even have the same meaning? – Tsundoku Nov 4 '20 at 20:16

There are two verbs: pouvoir and causer. Each has its own tense, which might be a compound tense involving the auxiliary avoir (with some verbs, it would be être instead). “Pouvoir causer” as a whole doesn't have a tense.

  • pourrait: conditionnel présent
  • aurait pu: conditionnel passé
  • causer: infinitif présent
  • avoir causé: infinitif passé

Both sentences are correct. They have different meanings.

Cet événement climatique pourrait causer de graves conséquences.

The event is happening now, or this is a discourse about the event in the present tense. It is not known whether the event will have grave consequences, but it is a possibility. The conditional makes it a hypothetical of the not-known variety: we don't have enough knowledge to decide whether grave consequences will result. The distinction between “pourrait causer” and “peut causer” (indicatif présent) is similar to the distinction between “can cause” and “could cause” in English.

Cet événement climatique pourrait avoir causé de graves conséquences.

The event happened in the past. Whether it has had grave consequences is not known yet. There are no known grave consequences, but bad things may have already been triggered. If bad things have been triggered, we haven't found out yet, or we know about these things but we don't know that the event in question caused them.

Cet événement climatique aurait pu causer de graves conséquences.

The event happened in the past. Events of this nature are known to have a possibility of causing grave consequences. However, we know that this particular event did not have grave consequences. Here the conditional is a hypothetical of the what-if variety: if the event had turned out differently, it could have been bad, but in this particular case it didn't turn out to be bad.

  • thank you for your detailed answer. I just think the infinitif passé would be 'avoir causé' and not 'avoir causer' in this case, don't you think? I couldn't make the edit myself.. – Simon Lac Nov 5 '20 at 12:34
  • @SimonLac Yes, that was copypasta, thanks. – Gilles 'SO nous est hostile' Nov 5 '20 at 12:52

Instead of the more usual "infinitif" found after "pouvoir" you find the "infinitif passé" of the verb "causer". (infinitif passé) The idea in using the "infinitif passsé" is that of an event that took place before another.

The mode and tense of "pouvoir" is the "conditionnel présent".

Let's look at the difference by means of examples.

  • Les fortes pluies pourraient causer des inondations.
    (Flooding could occur any time from now on, that is from the time this sentence is spoken (at least from the point of view of the person speaking)).

  • Les fortes pluies pourraient avoir causé des inondations.
    (Flooding could have occurred some time before now, that is, before the time this sentence is spoken (at least from the point of view of the person speaking)).

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