#269: Perfect Modals in English | Could Have, Would Have, Should Have

Mar 15, 2023 | Grammar, Modal Verbs

Let me ask you: how often do you think about the past and wish you had made a different decision? Or regret an outcome? Or wonder how life might be different now if you had made a different choice?

It’s natural for us to reflect on the past and experience a mix of emotions/thoughts about the past.

When we want to express those feelings and thoughts, perfect modals are the ideal way to do so.


Perfect modals – such as would have, could have, and should have –  help us travel back in time. 

While the simple past is used to talk about what happened in the past, perfect modals go further and allow us to express those thoughts/feelings about the past.

In this Confident English lesson today, you’ll learn how to use 3 perfect modals – would have, could have, and should have – with structural accuracy. 

And you’ll learn 6 ways to use the perfect modals so you can confidently express how you feel or what you think about past events in English.


How and Why to Use Perfect Modals in English

The Structure of Perfect Modals

How do you form a sentence with a perfect modal?

Regular modal verbs such as should, could, and would are paired with the verb have and followed by the past participle or the third form of a verb.

Subject + modal + have + past participle

For example: 

  • Should have gone
  • Should have considered
  • Could have become
  • Could have been
  • Would have decided
  • Would have liked


Pronunciation Tip: In spoken communication, we usually contract perfect modals

  • Should’ve
  • Could’ve
  • Would’ve 

In their contracted forms, the pronunciations can vary:

  • Ex. Should’ve can sound like /shoulduhv/ or /shoulda/

    I should’ve booked the appointment for 4:30 instead.


Strategy #1: “Should Have” Expresses Regret

We all wish we could go back in time to change past actions. When reflecting on past events, you might even want to express regret. 

Should have can be used to express that you wish a past action had been different. 

  • Ex. Imagine you’re late for work and you think, “I should have set an alarm to help me wake up on time.

In turn, we also use should have when we regret an action and wish to apologize.  

  • Ex. When you get to work, you might apologize to your coworkers by saying, “I’m so sorry I’m late. I should’ve been more mindful of the time.


Strategy #2: “Should Have” Provides Feedback

Alternatively, we can also use should have to provide feedback or to highlight a personal error. 

  • Ex. Perhaps, your manager is reviewing a report. She may notice room for improvement and say, “The report looks great. I think you should’ve included the notes on trends. Let’s remember to include it in the final draft.” 
  • Ex. Imagine a coworker made a mistake in ordering supplies. To clarify what happened, they might say, “I should’ve written 50, but I accidentally wrote 500!

          COULD HAVE

          Strategy #3: “Could Have” Expresses Possibility

          Next, we use could have to express that an action or even may have been a possibility. 

          • Ex. For instance, imagine you’re traveling with family and someone has lost their way. You may say, “She could have gone back to the restaurant. Let’s go check!” 

          Strategy #4: “Could Have” States Ability

          In contrast, we also use could have to state that someone did or did not have an ability. 

          • Ex. For example, a nurse or doctor may wonder how an injured person got to the hospital and think, “he couldn’t have driven to the hospital on his own!
          • If you’re reflecting and telling your son/daughter about your adolescent years, you might say, “I could have gone to university that year, but I chose to travel instead.

            WOULD HAVE

            Strategy #5: “Would Have” Expresses Wants/Preferences

            While should have helps us express guilt or regret, would have helps us express our wishes, preferences, and perceived choices for a past event. 

            • Ex. For instance, imagine your son has the opportunity to study abroad for a year. In talking about this with him, you might say, “What a wonderful opportunity! I would have loved to study abroad for a year when I was your age.” 

            On the flip side, you can also use would have to express what you wanted/intended in the past. 

            • Ex. Perhaps, your friend asks why you didn’t call them back. You might share, “I would’ve called you but I accidentally dropped my phone in water.” 

            Strategy #6: “Would Have” Explores Hypothetical Situations

            Finally, would have explores hypothetical events or circumstances. 

            When exploring hypothetical situations, we pair would have with a conditional structure. 

            • Ex. For example, your friend shows you an article of a lottery winner that bought an expensive car. You might remark, “If I had won a million dollars, I would have bought a giant house.
            • Ex. Perhaps, your spouse brings over a few more friends than you expected for a dinner party. If you didn’t make enough food, you might say, “I would’ve made some more food if I’d known you were coming!”  

              Time to Practice

              After watching this lesson, share your answers to the following questions with me:

              1. What should you have done yesterday? Will you be doing it today?
              2. Think back to 10 years ago. What is something you could have done at the time but chose not to?
              3. Think about the past week or two. Is there anything you would have done but didn’t have time? What was it?

              You can share your answers — as well as your questions — with me in the comments below.

              ~ Annemarie


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