Martin: Oh… Hello! Ah… I should have prepared for this lesson, I guess. Now I don’t know what to say. Whoops!
Stephanie: Martin! You could have at least warned me. Now what are we going to do?
M: I would have done it, but I was just so busy…
S: I could have done it if you’d told me. Don’t you have some notes, or something we can use?
M: I had some notes, but I can’t find them.
S: Well, think about it: where could they be?
M: Not sure… I could have left them on the bus.
S: I should never have agreed to do this video…
1. Would Have
Sometimes, you have moments when your life could go in very different ways.
For example, maybe you take an important exam, and your result decides where you can go to university.
Maybe you’re thinking about moving to another country. Do you stay where you are, or do you leave?
Perhaps you’re in a relationship and things aren’t going so well. Do you stay and try to make it work, or do you move on?
Life is full of these important moments and decisions. Try to think of something like this from your past.
Now, ask yourself: you made the choices you made. You passed the exam, or you failed it; you moved to another country, or you didn’t. That’s reality, but what if things had gone the other way?
This is the imaginary past. You’re imagining a different version of the past. You’re asking yourself questions like:
- What if I had worked a bit harder, and passed that exam?
- What if I had taken that job, and moved to Italy?
- What if I had told her how I feel?
This is where you use would have. Use would have to talk about the imaginary past. For example:
- If I had got better exam results, I would have got into Harvard.
- I wouldn’t have met my wife if I had moved to Italy seven years ago.
- If I hadn’t forgotten my pen that day, I wouldn’t have asked to borrow yours, and we wouldn’t have become friends!
Think about your important moment from the past, when your life could have gone in two very different directions: what would have happened if things had gone the other way?
So, you can use would have to talk about the imaginary past. What about our other verbs?
2. Could Have
You can also use could have to talk about the imaginary past:
- If I’d had more time, I could have finished everything.
- He could have won it if he hadn’t slipped at the start.
When you use could have to talk about the imaginary past, you’re talking about possibilities.
You’re talking about opportunities and chances which you didn’t have in reality, but in your imaginary version of the past, you would have had these chances.
However, could have can also have different meanings. Let’s look:
S: Where do you suppose they are?
M: I don’t know. They’re usually so reliable. I guess they could have mixed up the date?
S: Shall we try calling them again? We can’t wait forever.
M: When will it be ready?
S: I think next Thursday.
M: You said you’d have it finished by the end of this week! Now what am I going to do?
M: You could have told me sooner that you weren’t going to finish on time.
M: Doctor, is it serious?
S: No, it’s just a scratch, but be more careful next time. You could have really hurt yourself!
Here, you saw three more ways to use could have. Remember that you can go back and review the dialogues if you need to.
Can you explain how could have is used in each of these dialogues?
Could have can mean that you aren’t sure about something in the past. You’re talking about a possibility:
- They could have mixed up the date.
- I’ve lost my keys. I could have left them at work.
- Where are they? I guess they could have missed the train.
In these examples, you aren’t sure about something that happened in the past. You use could have to make a guess about what happened.
You can also use could have to criticise someone:
- You could have told me sooner.
- You could have tidied up a bit.
- You could have worn something a bit nicer.
In these examples, you want to criticise the other person for something they didn’t do.
Finally, you can use could have to mean that somebody was lucky to avoid a bad situation in the past:
- It’s just a scratch, but you could have really hurt yourself.
- We were really late, and we could have missed our plane, but luckily we just made it.
Let’s review quickly. Could have has four different meanings. Can you remember them?
You can use could have to talk about the imaginary past, to guess about something in the past which you aren’t sure about, to criticise someone for something they didn’t do, and to say that someone was lucky to avoid a bad situation.
Next, what about should have?
3. Should Have
You just saw that could have can be used to criticise someone. Should have is similar, but you can use it in a wider variety of ways.
Like could have, you can use it to criticise something that someone didn’t do in the past:
- You should have called me like you promised.
- He should have checked the recipe before he started cooking.
- They should have practiced taking penalties before the match.
You can also use it to criticise something that someone did:
- You shouldn’t have drunk so much at the wedding!
- She shouldn’t have left everything to the last minute.
You can even use it to criticise yourself, if you regret something which you did in the past:
- I should have realised what was going on.
- I shouldn’t have said that.
You can also use should have to apologise to someone. If you say I shouldn’t have said that, you’re admitting that you made the wrong choice, and that you regret it.
This is the most common use of should have: criticising others or yourself, and talking about things you regret in the past.
However, it has one more meaning. Look at three examples. Can you work out what should have means here?
- They should have been here by now.
- It should have been ready an hour ago.
- The plane should have landed at seven thirty.
Can you see what should have means here?
Here, you use should have to talk about something which you expected to happen, but it didn’t happen.
They should have been here by now means that you expected them to have arrived before now, but you’re still waiting.
It should have been ready an hour ago means that you expected everything to be ready earlier. Maybe you’re cooking something, and it’s taking much longer than you thought it would.
The plane should have landed at seven thirty means that you expected the plane to land then, but it didn’t. Probably, you mean that the plane is late, and you’re still waiting for it.
Now, you should have learned two different ways to use should have. Let’s practice using would have, could have and should have together.
4. Would Have, Could Have, Should Have
M: You should have told me your friends were coming! I would have made some extra food.
S: Sorry! I would have called you, but I had no phone credit. I should have topped up before we went out.
M: What are we going to eat? We don’t have much in the fridge.
S: I should have stopped and got a takeaway on the way. Not to worry: we’ll order something.
S: Where’s the food? I’m so hungry! They should have come by now, right?
M: They’re probably just busy.
S: They could have forgotten. They would have called if there was a problem, don’t you think?
M: Relax! You should have had a snack when you got in. It’ll be here soon.
S: That was delicious! I’ve never had such a good meal.
M: You could have left some for me. What am I supposed to eat?
S: Oh… I’m so sorry! I would have left some if I’d known you wanted some. I should have asked.
M: Yeah, you should have. Oh well, there’s half a cucumber in the fridge, I think.
Look at three sentences from the dialogues. Can you explain what they mean?
- I would have made some more food.
- They could have forgotten.
- I should have asked.
The first sentence is talking about the imaginary past. It means that if I had known you were bringing guests, I would have made some more food. But, in reality, I didn’t know, so I didn’t make enough food.
The second sentence is talking about something you aren’t sure about in the past. Do you remember the situation? We were waiting for our takeaway to arrive. It was late, and we didn’t know what had happened. You use could have here to make a guess about something in the past when you don’t know what happened.
The third sentence is a criticism, or an expression of regret. If you say this, you mean that you made a mistake in the past.
Think back to the dialogues. Did we use should have or could have in any other ways?
Look at two more sentences:
- They should have come by now.
- You could have left some for me.
What do should have and could have mean here?
Here, should have means that something didn’t happen the way you expected. You expected the food to be here by now, but it isn’t.
Could have is used to criticise something which someone else didn’t do.
Now, hopefully you understand how to use would have, could have and should have.
Get more practice with another Oxford Online English lesson: Talking About the Past in English.
Thanks for watching!