Past modal verbs talk about things that could have happened in the past. We know that modals are verbs that express ability, probability, advice, obligation, deduction, expectation, and preference. In this posting I talk about how to discuss these things in the past. There will be many example sentences. The download at the end will give you additional practice understanding and using past modal verbs.
Let us now examine how past modal verbs are used.
Past modal verbs in the simple past
We can use past modal verbs in the simple past for modals of ability and obligation. Use the following formula: subject + simple past tense of modal + base form of the verb
- can–could–Last year I could run a mile in 5 minutes. I broke my leg three weeks ago, so now I can’t run at all.
- must, have to–When I was young I had to wake up at 5:00 am to get to school on time.
Past modal verbs of possibility and advice
Past modal verbs of possibility and advice are sometimes called modals of lost opportunities. They express regret that things did not go the way you had hoped. They are often expressed with the conditional word if. These modals include the following verbs: could have, should have, and would have. Note, Americans often pronounce these verbs as could of or coulda, would of or woulda, and should of or shoulda. Use the following formula: subject + modal + past participle
- If I had known that he was going to move, I could have helped him. I had the ability to help him in the past. I didn’t help him, however, because I didn’t know he was going to move. Now I feel badly about it.
- We could have come to the wedding, if only they had invited us. We were able to come to the wedding. It was certainly possible for us to do so. but they didn’t invite us, and we are unhappy about that.
- She would have been there if she had known how serious his illness was. It was possible for her to have been there. She wasn’t there, however, because she didn’t know how ill he was. Now she wishes she knew.
- If I weren’t so tired, I would have gone to the party. It was possible to go to the party, but I chose to stay home because I was tired. Now I think I made the wrong decision.
- I should have known better than to trust him. I made a mistake in trusting him. I knew he was not honest, and I did not listen to my self.
- You should have prepared for your job interview. Then, maybe you would have gotten the job. This is advice in the past. You did not prepare for you interview, even though you should have. Because of that, you did not get the job.
- I’m sorry. I should have told you I couldn’t come to dinner tonight. We often use should have with an apology. It is is if we are giving ourselves advice in the past.
Other past modal verbs of possibility
When we talk about what was possible in the past, we can use the past modal verbs might have and may have. Here is the formula to use: subject + modal + past participle.
- Pedro might have gone to the game. He wasn’t at home last night. We are not sure where Pedro was last night, but it is possible that he was at the game.
- He may have left without us since we forgot to tell him to wait for us. He didn’t wait for us. We don’t know why for sure, but quite possibly because we forgot to tell him to wait for us.
- When I think of all the things I might have done if I had graduated from college, I feel sad. It was possible for me to graduate from college, but I didn’t do it. Now I regret my poor choices.
Past modal verbs of deduction, expectation, and preference
The past modal verbs of deduction, expectation, and preference work in a similar way to other past modal verbs. These are the verbs we use: must have, had to have, should have, was supposed to have been, would have preferred, and would rather have. Use the following formula: subject + modal + past participle.
- He must have known that Bob was going to quit his job. They’re best friends. This is a deduction in the past.
- She had to have paid her taxes. They were due last week. Again, this is a deduction in the past.
- They should have arrived in Paris by now. Their plane took off yesterday. This could be both a deduction and an expectation in the past.
- This was supposed to have been finished by now. Everyone is waiting for it. This is an expectation in the past.
- I would have preferred that you told me yesterday that you couldn’t work tonight. Note that the structure is different here. After the modal, we use that + subject + simple past.
- I would rather have ordered the shrimp, but it wasn’t on the menu. This is preference in the past.
You now know that we can use many modal verbs in the past tense. We can express the verbs can, must, and have to in the simple past using could and had to. Other past modal verbs require a different structure: subject + modal with have + past participle. These past modal verbs often express regret for lost opportunities in the past. This means that something could have happened in the past, but didn’t. The download will give you addition practice using past modal verbs.
You can download the practice sheet now!
Idioms of the day
- to bend over backwards–This means to be very kind, patient, and forgiving, and to be willing to do anything to help someone. My sister is very kind. She will give up her own time and money to help me. In fact, she would bend over backwards for me.
- believe it or not–This means that something is true, even if it is very hard to believe. Believe it or not, my brother is moving to Texas! He said he would never move there, but he got such a good job offer, that he couldn’t say no.