So we are a week past the election here in Australia and we have heard a lot of politicians searching for explanations such as “the labour party should’ve…” or “the liberal party would’ve won by more if…” or “if only I could’ve…”. But, the time has gone, nothing can be changed, the events can only be analysed. When talking about past events, usually with some regret, these modal verbs are very common. They offer the English learner some challenges as their meanings are quite similar. Let’s have a go at breaking them down:
Should have– I know now what the right decision was but didn’t make it at the time. I am thinking back to the event with regret. This is advice for the past.
I should have gone to bed earlier on the night before the exam.
The Labour party should have spent more time in lobbying in Queensland before the election.
Could have– something might have happened, but didn’t. I had a choice but now I am reflecting on what I didn’t do.
If Bill Shorten could have explained himself better, more people may have voted for him.
It’s also used when we are not sure whether certain events happened or not.
It could have rained last night, but the roads are dry now.
Would have– is usually used to imagine a result in the past that didn’t occur. I can’t change the past, but I can imagine things turning out differently. ‘Would have’ implies a lot more certainty than ‘could have’.
If I practised more, I would be much better at playing guitar.
Lastly, don’t forget the contractions! When talking, we want to speed up so words are shortened. Should have becomes ‘should’ve’, could have becomes ‘could’ve’, and of course would have becomes ‘would’ve’. Practise these quickly and then you’re saying ‘shoulda coulda woulda’. Everyone will think you’ve been speaking English for years!!
Now that we’ve got that sorted, listen to Beverley Knight singing about her regrets in the song ‘Woulda Coulda Shoulda’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0d0JUiBCakg