Would have, Could have, Should have

Modal verbs are an unavoidable part of English grammar. We use them to express modality – ability, likelihood, advice, order, suggestion, capacity, permission, request, and obligation. In today’s lesson, we will look at some modal verbs in the past such as would, could and should (would have – could have – should have). As a rule, they express our present feelings about our past actions.

The structure we use to express it is:



You probably find this construction familiar from the third conditional. It is about an unreal situation that didn’t happen. In most cases, it expresses regret.

For example:

  • If I had known you were in the hospital, I would have visited you. (but I didn’t know and I didn’t visit you.)
  • I would have prepared a bigger meal if I had known you were coming. (but I didn’t know and I didn’t prepare it).
  • John would have passed the exam if he had studied harder. (but he didn’t study so he couldn’t pass his exam).

You can also use would have + past participle to talk about something you wanted to do but for some reason but you didn’t. Here, the sentence other than would have + past participle is in the Past Simple Tense.

For example:

  • I would have gone to Martha’s birthday party but I had to study for my exam. (I wanted to go to the party but I didn’t)
  • Sam would have picked you up but her car broke down. (She wanted to pick them us but she couldn’t).
  • They would have gone clubbing with us last night but they had guests around. (They wanted to go clubbing but they couldn’t).
Would have, could have, should have
Would have, could have, should have


Could have means that something might have happened in the past but it didn’t. These sentences usually contain regret.

Look at these examples:

  • We could have got married and had a family of our own. (but they didn’t get married).
  • I could have graduated from college but I left it and got a job instead.
  • You could have been rich but you didn’t work hard enough.

You can also the construction could have + past participle to make an assumption about something that happened in the past.

For example:

  • Where is my wallet? I could have left it in the car. (I might have left it in the car).
  • “Why is the window open? The children could have opened it. (The children might have opened it).
  • Can it be that Sam is late? He could have been stuck in the traffic. (Sam might have been stuck in the traffic).

Remember that couldn’t have + past participle has the opposite meaning. It expresses something that couldn’t have happened but it did.

For example:

  • Where is Kevin? He couldn’t have forgotten about our arrangement. (It is unlikely that he forgot but he did).
  • Pamela couldn’t have arrived any earlier because of the traffic. (she planned to be on time but because of the traffic she wasn’t).
  • I couldn’t have called you because I lost my phone. (I wanted to call you but I lost my phone).


The modal verb should is normally used to give advice or recommendation. However, when used in the past, it becomes complaining or regret.

Look at these sentences:

  • I should have gone to bed earlier. Now I’m sleepy.
  • They should have called the police when they saw the car had been robbed.
  • I should have listened to you. Now I’m sorry I didn’t.

Shouldn’t have + past participle means that something was a bad idea but it was done anyway.

For example:

  • You shouldn’t have gone without me (you should have called me)
  • I shouldn’t have stayed up so late. (now I’m tired)
  • You shouldn’t have drunk so much at the party. Who’s going to drive us home now?

Remember that shortened forms of would have, could have and should have are would’ve, could’ve and should’ve:

  • I should’ve known that you’d be late.
  • We could’ve been rich by now if we invested money.
  • I would’ve called you if I’d known you were ill.
Would have - could have - should have
Would have – could have – should have

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