Sunday, November 16, 2014

Modal past

There are three main ways of talking about the past using modals or their equivalents:
  • Past modals - mainly would and could
  • The use of other, similar verbs
  • Modal perfect - must have, can't have etc
Brush up your knowledge of modal past by doing a few exercises.

Past modals

Intro 1Complete each sentence with would or could plus a verb from the box.
walk · cost · do · help · become · get · deal · play
1. She can be very musical when she wants to be. In fact she the piano quite well when she was five.
2. He won't give me a hand today, and he me yesterday, either.
3. Susan: "I can take care of it for you" - Susan said that she with it for me.
4. He used to live near the centre and to work every day for the exercise.
5. Little did he know that one day he Prime Minister.
6. "This one will be fine", she thought to herself. She thought that it nicely.
7. "I wonder how much this one will be". She had no idea of how much it .
8. I can't make this thing work, and I it to work yesterday, either.
Intro 2Decide which question from Ex 1 best matches each function
1. Past habit or routine
2. Reported thought
3. Past general ability
4. Future in the past
5. Refusal in the past
6. Indirect question
7. Past negative ability
8. Reported speech

Other verb forms

There are some modals which don't have past forms, for example must, and we have to use past forms of other verbs instead.
And there are some past modals, such as could, we can only use in certain contexts. To talk about ability and permission on specific occasions in the past, for example, we need to use past forms of other verbs.
1. Obligation
Unfortunately I must get up early again today.
Yesterday I get up at 5am. (2 words)  
2. Ability on a specific occasion
A: We can get the tickets for the match this afternoon.
B: I know that last year we could usually get tickets the day of the match, but yesterday I get some early, so we don't need to worry. (3 words)
I to get some yesterday. (1 word = succeeded)  
3. Permission on a specific occasion
"The children can stay up late tonight."
They could usually stay up till about 9pm, but that night they to stay up to midnight. (2 words = their parents let them


  • The main past forms we use on their own are could and would, here the past forms of can and will. Occasionally might is also used.
  • We use would for:
    • habits and routines in the past:
      He'd start every day with a cup of coffee.
    • annoying habits in the past (would is stressed)
      He would keep interrupting me all the time.
    • refusal in the past (negative forms)
      He'd never do what he was told.
    • future in the past
      She would later achieve fame and fortune as a clothes designer.
  • We use could for:
    • general ability in the past
      She could ride a bike at the age of four.
    • general permission in the past
      We could do pretty well what we liked.
  • Note that we can't use could to apply to ability and permission on specific occasions. Then we need to use be able to or managed to for ability, and be allowed to for permission, or similar expressions.
  • We can use negative forms of could for both general ability and permission and ability and permission on specific occasions
    • I couldn't get my car to start this morning.
      She couldn't go out last night as her mother made her do her homework
  • We occasionally use might for the possibility of something happening in the past:
    • When I lived in London my aunt might sometimes visit me unexpectedly.
  • We can also use past modal forms in:
    • reported speech and thoughts
      She said she could/would do it tomorrow
      He imagined he might be a bit late
    • indirect questions
      She didn't know if she'd be able to make the meeting.
      He wondered if she could give him some information.
  • We can only use must for obligation in its present form. For past obligation, or after a modal, we need to use have to.

Modal perfect

Modal perfect is mainly used for:
  • Speculating and making deductions
  • Commenting, criticising and expressing annoyance
  • Expressing unfulfilled possibility, willingness or result

A note on the use of contractions in the exercises

Contract negatives, in both standard and perfect modals - wouldn't, wouldn't have, etc - but for the sake of the exercises, don't contract have in modal perfects. So, write in, for example, would have, would't have, etc. There's a note about contracting modal perfects in writing after the exercises.
Intro 4Complete the sentences with verbs from the box in the perfect form of the modal verb in bold in the first part of the question.
tell · take · go · be · leave · phone · miss · have · speak
1. He must be out at the moment, he's not in the office.
He to see a client.
2. You could let me know when you're going to be late.
You me you were going to be late.
3. I would call him if I knew his number.
I earlier, but my battery ran out.
4. They might be stuck in a traffic jam somewhere.
Or they the bus.
5. He shouldn't be so offhand with customers.
And he certainly to that customer like that yesterday.
6. We could catch a bus.
We the bus, but decided to walk instead.
7. It's a dangerous mountain, you might fall and break something.
I told you not to climb that mountain! You an accident!
8. She can't be in Spain yet, surely?
She for Spain already, surely?
9. They should arrive soon.
They here an hour ago. I wonder what's happened.
Intro 5Decide which question from Ex 4 best matches each function
Speculation and deduction
1. Speculating - that something was possible
2. Deduction - you're pretty sure about a positive past fact
3. Deduction - you're pretty sure about a negative past fact
Comment, criticism and annoyance
4. Commenting on the possiblity of something bad happening in the past
5. Criticising somebody's past behaviour
6. Expressing annoyance at somebody's past behaviour
Describing hypothetical events
7. Describes something that was expected to happen, but hasn't happened yet
8. Describes past possibility of doing something, but which wasn't done
9. Describes past willingness to do something which wasn't done

Modal perfect - speculation and deduction

We can use modal perfect to:
  • to speculate about a possibility in the past:
    could have, might have, may have

    He could have simply forgotten.

  • to express uncertainty about the past:
    might not have, may not have

    They might/may not have realised that I meant today.

  • to express certainty that something happened:
    must have

    She must have done forgotten to call back.

  • to express certainty that something didn't happen:
    can't have, couldn't have

    It can't have been Derek, he's in France.
    She couldn't have got our letter.

  • with surely to express disbelief:
    must have, can't have, couldn't have

    He must have known it was a stupid thing to do, surely!
    Surely she couldn't have done that all by herself!

  • to make assumptions about the past
    would have

    - Someone called when you were out
    - Oh that would probably have been Maisy, our next-door neighbour.

Modal perfect - describing hypothetical events

We can use modal perfect for hypothetical siuations, for example in past hypothetical conditionals (3rd and mixed). We can use it to:
  • to describe a past possibility or ability which wasn't fulfilled, often with but or if:
    could have

    They could have bought a more expensive car (but decided on this one).
    We could have gone to see them if they hadn't been in Spain.

  • to describe past events that didn't happen, often with but and if. This often involves willingness:
    would have

    We would have gone to see them but it turned out they were in Spain.
    The building would have collapsed if it hadn't been so well designed.

  • to describe past events that took place only because something else happened
    negative forms of
    could have, would have

    I wouldn't have done it if you hadn't told me to.
    We could never have finished it without your help.

  • to express past unwillingness to do something
    negative forms of
    could have, would have

    We couldn't have left without saying goodbye. (= we weren't willing to)
    She wouldn't have let me down.

  • to describe something that was expected to happen but hasn't yet:
    should have

    They should have been here by now

  • with comparatives:
    negative forms of
    could have

    He couldn't have been more helpful. (= he was extremely helpful)
    We couldn't have run any faster if we'd tried. (= we ran as fast as we could)

Modal perfect - commenting, criticising and expressing annoyance

We can use modal perfect
  • to comment on a possible negative result (that didn't actually happen):
    could have, might have (but NOT may have)

    You could/might have had an accident

  • to comment on or criticise someone's actions:
    should have, shouldn't have
    You should have phoned me
  • to express annoyance at someone else's behaviour:
    could have, might have
    He could/might have told us he'd already bought the tickets

Modal perfect in special expressions, idioms etc

  • to thank someone:
    shouldn't have
    - We've got you this little present.
    - Oh, thank you so much, but you really shouldn't have.
  • to say that something wouldn't have been desirable
    It would have been + adj + infininitive

    It would have been unkind not to have helped her
    It wouldn't have been very polite to have left too early.

  • to say that something is typical of someone
    might have known

    I might have known he'd do something like that.
    A. She's late again. B. I might have known!

Need and dare in the past

The verb need is a semi-modal. It is usually used like a normal verb, but a model form is sometimes used in questions and negatives:
  • I need to go to the shops. (normal verb form)
  • We don't need to get any oranges. (normal verb form)
    We needn't get any apples. (modal form)
  • Do we need to be home early? (normal verb form)
    Need we go to bed already? (modal form)
In the present negative there is no difference in meaning, and in present questions there is little difference, although the modal form is used especially when we don't really want to do something.
In past negative, however, there is a difference in meaning. Complete the sentences:
1. We didn't need to hurry, because
2. We needn't have hurried, because
The verb dare has two meanings - to have the courage or cheek to do something, and to challenge somebody to do something. In the first meaning it is also a semi-modal. In the past it is usually used in the negative. Most commonly a normal verb form with didn't is used, but in a literary style a modal form is also sometimes used:
  • He didn't dare tell her he had forgotten already. (normal verb form)
  • He dared not tell her he had forgotten already. (modal form)

Special uses of should and should have

Usually should is similar in meaning to ought to. But sometimes, especially in British English, should is used in different ways:
  • in that-clauses
    • after verbs connected with suggestions, recommendations, orders and requests
      He recommended (that) I should take a rest.
    • after adjectives connected with importance, surprise, interest etc
      It's interesting (that) he should say that.
  • Instead of would
    • in purpose clauses
      We hurried so that we should not be late.
    • before certain verbs, such as think, imagine, hope, say when we are not certain about something
      I should imagine he'd have arrived back home by now.
Occasionally we can use should have in the same way:
  • It's encouraging that she should have chosen mathematics as a career.
  • Why are you all dressed up? I should have thought it was obvious.
Practice 1Underline the best option by clicking on it (click again to 'undo').
1. You must have warned / might have warned me that the plate was hot!
2. She left early as she must have met / had to meet someone off the train.
3. When she was young she just wouldn't do / shouldn't do as she was told.
4. It's possible he might have forgotten / should have forgotten about the meeting.
5. I'm not sure who told me, but it must have been / could have been Tracy.
6. You've just discovered what he's like! I could have told / may have told you that myself.
7. It can't have been / shouldn't have been Judy; she's away on holiday.
8. It's strange that he should have thought / must have thought that it was me.
9. You may have asked / should have asked me how to get there. I know the way.
10. It shouldn't have been / wouldn't have been polite not to accept their invitation.
11. She didn't know it at the time, but one day she could be / would be world champion.
12. We didn't need to buy / needn't have bought as I knew we already had plenty.
13. It was't at all how I imagined it must be / would be like.
14. Luckily, we could get / were able to get a last minute flight, so we're off tomorrow.
15. Shouldn't it / can't it have arrived by now? We ordered it ages ago.
Practice 2Complete each sentence with a phrase from the box.
Click'n'drop - Click on a phrase in the box then on the gap where you want it to go. Text entry is not possible.
1. She   realised what she was doing was wrong, surely.
2. They   given us a warmer welcome. It was wonderful.
3. He   said that unless he'd had a very good reason.
4. He really   spoken to her like that. It was very rude.
5. You   phoned to say you would be late.
6. It's possible he   got the message.
7. We   got here earlier but the traffic was awful.
8. He   left work already, surely. It's only 3 o'clock.
9. You   seen her face when she heard the news. It was priceless.
10. I can't be certain, but I   left a window open.
Practice 3Complete the second sentence so that it has a similar meaning to the first, using the word given. Use between three and five words and don't change the word given.
1. It would easily have been possible for her to finish it on her own.
She it on her own.
2. I'm annoyed you didn't tell me earlier.
You me earlier.
3. It wasn't necessary for them to go to all that bother.
They to all that bother.
4. It looks as though they have all gone out.
They out.
5. It wouldn't have been fair to ask you to work late again.
I you to work late again.
6. It wasn't necessary to hurry, so we had another coffee.
We , so we had another coffee.
7. I locked myself out but managed to get in through a window.
I locked myself out but I in through a window.
8. It was her custom to always give us presents when we visited her.
She us presents when we visited her.
9. It's possible that he hasn't heard the news yet.
may well
He our message.
10. They didn't make us pay any extra.
We any extra.
Practice 4Replace the modal verb in each sentence with a more appropriate one. In some cases there may be more than one possible answer. Use contractions for negatives, but not for 'have'
EG. You would have seen his reaction when he was told the news.should have
1. She just may have passed the exam if she had put in a bit more effort.
2. You must have told me you didn't like horror movies. We could have gone to see something else.
3. We shouldn't have made all that food, seeing hardly anyone ate anything.
4. When he was preparing for the marathon, he could start every day with a thirty-minute run.
5. You mustn't have made such a fuss when they couldn't give you a window seat.
6. When she was a child she should never do what she was told.
7. It's strange that he can have acted that way.
8. I'm so grateful, I really can't have done it without your help.
9. She mustn't have told you the news yet! We're getting married!
10. She must go to London yesterday.
11. They wouldn't have been a nicer couple.
12. You would have finished that essay by now. It's due first thing tomorrow!
Practice 5Complete each sentence using one word in each gap. Contractions (mustn't) count as one word. Sometimes there may be more than one possible answer.
1. They have afforded a holiday abroad, but preferred to spend it in Scotland.
2. You have seen her expression when I told her where she could stick her job!
3. He was a bit of a child prodigy. He already do quadratic equations when he was six.
4. Mr Jones is away on a business trip, so it have been him you talked to. Perhaps it was Mr Brown.
5. He'd had enough of working hard for no reward. From then on he take life a bit easier.
6. That was a lovely dinner, but you really have gone to so much trouble just for us.
7. He didn't to apply for a visa, as they had just relaxed the rules.
8. Don't you dare do that again! You have got us all thrown out of the hotel!
9. Look, the lights are all on. Someone have forgotten to turn them off.
10. Silly girl! You have asked Peter to help you instead of doing it all on your own.
11. Don't mention it. I have let you move house all by yourself.
12. Where has that daughter of ours got to? She have been here an hour ago.
13. At least she was willing to help, unlike someone I could mention, who never lift a finger.
14. It's not like him to be late. He have been held up somewhere, perhaps.
15. He had no idea if it work or not, but it was worth a try.
16. You at least have admitted that I'd been right all along.
17. I have phoned earlier, only I was stuck in a meeting where using a mobile was out of the question.
18. We have booked after all. Look, there are plenty of free tables.
19. It's a all bit of a mystery. We have heard from him by now, but not a peep.
20. You have thought he would at least have sent an email or something.

Adverbs with modal expressions

We often use adverbs to emphasise modal expressions:
Practice 6Underline the best option by clicking on it (click again to 'undo').
1. I might just / badly / only have taken him up on his offer.
2. They could probably / fortunately / easily have had an accident.
3. She might strongly / well / badly have forgotten.
4. They must currently / luckily / obviously have got the wrong person.
5. We couldn't well / really / rarely have done it without you.
6. They simply / actually / easily couldn't believe their eyes.
7. She could easily / probably / needlessly have done it without anyone noticing.
8. She might definitely / certainly / possibly have left the keys with her neighbour.
9. Surely / Certainly / Probably you can't haven't forgotten his name already!
10. You well / really / easily shouldn't have gone to all that trouble.

A note on mustn't have

You might occasionally come across mustn't have instead of can't have for negative deduction, although most EFL books suggest that this is wrong. Here's an example from Google Books:
  • "You obviously didn't kill yourself and, since you stayed married, it mustn't have been too bad." The Change, Arthur James, 2006
In Practical English Usage, Michael Swan writes that we 'generally use cannot/can't to say something is certainly not the case. However, must not/mustn't is occasionally used in this sense, especially in American English', and he gives the example:
  • I haven't heard Molly moving about. She mustn't be awake yet. Her alarm mustn't have gone off.
    (OR ... She can't be awake yet. Her alarm can't have gone off.)
This use is controversial, and not everbody seems to accept it as standard. So although everyone will understand you if you use mustn't have, you're probably best sticking with can't have. And I've seen at least two exercises in EFL books lately where mustn't have instead of can't have is treated as a mistake.

A note on must've, could've and must of, could of etc

When speaking, we usually contract 'must have, couldn't have' etc to 'must've, couldn't've etc:
  • You must've have been out when I called.
  • He couldn't've heard what I said.

Contractions in written English

But modal perfect contractions, such as must've, could've, would've, although perfectly correct, seem to be used rather less in writing than contractions like aren't, haven't etc. Some commentators recommend avoiding them because of possible spelling problems (see below). And in negatives it's not considered standard to contract 'have', only 'not' - 'He can't have done', NOT 'He can't've done' (although that's how it sounds).

Spelling problems

Some native speakers have trouble spelling 'must have', 'could have', etc, although I don't think this is a problem for foreign learners.
This is because unstressed 'have' in 'You must've done!' for instance, sounds exactly the same as unstressed 'of', in for example, 'a cup of tea' - /əv/ - the vowel in both having the schwa sound. And some native speakers, perhaps not knowing too much about the grammar behind it, or having forgotten it, write 'must of' etc, instead of 'must have', as that's what they hear.
There's even a song, "Must Of Got Lost" (1974), by American rock Band, the J. Geils Band. If you see examples of this, don't worry, it's not a new form you didn't know about: it's a mistake. And a mistake that is taken by some people to be a sign of bad education, although it's quite understandable why people do it. So, you have been warned!


Related posts


Mustn't have

Must of, etc


thorn said...

There is an error in the exercise #1, question #3. The expected verb can't be found in the box above.

Warsaw Will said...

Thanks for that, thorn, and my apologies. It's been dealt with now.

Areti Gavalaki said...

Thanks a lot for this clear and thorough explanation! The exercises are very useful too!

Warsaw Will said...

Thanks for that, Areti. It's especially encouraging coming from a fellow EFL blogger. For anyone else reading this, Areti posts interesting short topical lessons (particularly good for increasing your vocabulary) at Around the World in English (see blogs for learners on the right)

Unknown said...

I always see a native speaker use "have" in the following sentence.

I've been Sherlock, thank your for following the live action of today's Barclays Premier League matches.

Why not say "I'm Sherlock"? Why use "have"/the present perfect?

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somdara said...

Thanks a lot for this clear and thorough explanation! The exercises are very useful too!


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