should and should have, would and would have, could and could have


Danilo Gomez Barbosa from Columbia writes:

Could you please explain the difference between the modal auxiliary verbs should, could and would and how they are used? Thanks for your help.

Asim from Pakistan writes:

I still feel some complication in understanding these modals: would have, should have and could have. Please give me some examples to help me understand.

Roger Woodham replies:


Should is used to give advice and make recommendations and to talk about obligation, duty and what is expected to happen. Reference is to the present and the future. Should is similar to must but is not as strong as must:

  • You should always wear a helmet when you go out cycling on busy roads.

  • Once the pack is opened, the cooked meat inside should be consumed within three days.

  • Should I tell her that her son is playing truant and skipping school? ~ I think you should. She should know about it.

should and should have

Should combines with the perfect infinitive to form should have + past participle when we want to talk about past events that did not happen, but should have happened. We are talking about an expectation and referring back to past time. Compare the following:

Before Tom leaves for work, his wife advises him:
  • You should take your umbrella. It might rain. ~ No, I'll be all right. I shan't need it.

    But it did rain. When he arrives back home, his wife says:

  • What did I tell you? You should have taken your umbrella. Then you wouldn't have got wet.

    Reference to the present and future:

  • You should try and smoke less, Henry. Your health isn't very good and it's getting worse.

    Reference to the past:

  • I should have given up smoking years ago, Mary. If I had, I wouldn't be in such bad shape now.


If we want to talk about an unreal or unlikely situation that might arise now or in the future, we use a past tense in the if-clause and would + infinitive in the main clause. Compare the following and note that would is often abbreviated to 'd:

  • How would you manage, if I wasn't here to help you? ~ I'd manage somehow. I wouldn't bother to cook. I'd go out to eat or bring home a take-away. I'd ask your mother to help me with the washing and the ironing. I know she'd help me.

would have

If we want to refer to the past and make a statement about things that did not happen, we need to use had + past participle in the if clause and would have constructions in the main clause. Note in these sentences that we can use 'd as the abbreviation for both had in the if-clause and would in the main clause:

  • If he'd taken an umbrella, he wouldn't have got wet on the way home.

  • If he'd taken his umbrella, he'd have stayed dry.


Could can be used to ask for permission, to make a request and express ability in the past. Compare the following:

  • Could I borrow your black dress for the formal dinner tomorrow? ~ Of course you can!

  • Could you do me a favour and pick Pete up from the station? ~ Of course I will!

  • I could already swim by the time I was three. ~ Could you really? I couldn't swim until I was eight.

could have

As with would have, and should have, could have is used to talk about the past and refers to things that people could have done in the past, but didn't attempt to do or succeed in doing:

  • I could have gone to university, if I'd passed my exams.

  • If he'd trained harder, I'm sure he could have completed the swim.

Note the difference between would have and could have in the following two examples. Would have indicates certainty that he would have won if he had tried harder, could have indicates that it is a possibility. Might have is similar in meaning to could have, although the possibility is perhaps not quite as great:
  • If he'd tried a bit harder, he would have won the race.
  • If he'd tried a bit harder, he could have won the race.
  • If he'd tried a bit harder, he might have won the race.

should have / could have / wouldn't have

Note the way in which all three of these modals are combined in these exchanges which refer to a meeting that has just taken place:

  • Why did you come to the meeting? It didn't need both of us. You should have known that I would be there. ~ How could I have known you'd be there? I haven't spoken to you for a fortnight! ~ If I'd known you were intending to go, I certainly wouldn't have gone!
You will sometimes see would have written as would've, should have as should've and could have as could've.

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