Modals to Talk about the Past & Third Conditional
Episode #8 of the course English grammar by Kasia Sielicka, PhD
Okay, I admit. I’ve never asked a woman to marry me. I have no idea how to do that!
The phone call was a fail. I could have at least asked her out!
And I asked her about the time! I should have asked her to marry me!
What was I thinking? Was I thinking at all? No, I can’t have been thinking properly . . .
Oh my, oh my . . .
If I had asked her to marry me, she probably would have refused . . . Or maybe she would have said yes . . . Now I will never know!
Well, it serves me right.
Luckily, I’m meeting her at work tomorrow. Maybe I’ll have a chance to fix things.
Modals to Talk about the Past
I could have at least asked her out!
I should have asked her to marry me!
Here, John uses modal verb + have + third form to criticize his past actions. He didn’t ask her out—but it was possible. He didn’t ask her to marry him—but he thinks it would have been better if he had. A few more examples:
You didn’t check the departure time and we were late. You should have checked that!
You forgot to pack my toothbrush. You could have done that.
I can’t have been thinking properly.
Here, John uses the same grammar structure to speculate about things in the past. He isn’t really sure if he was thinking properly, but he did some stupid things, so he draws the conclusion that he wasn’t. This is what a detective, like Sherlock Holmes, could do. More examples:
He wasn’t at home, so he can’t have slept in his bed. (= I’m sure he didn’t sleep.)
He was on Facebook. He must have seen my message. (= I’m sure he saw.)
The lights were on. He might have been reading a book. (= Maybe he was reading.)
If I had asked her to marry me, she probably would have refused.
To speculate about the past, we can also use the Third Conditional. In the “if” part, we use Past Perfect (If I had asked) and in the main part, would + have + third form (she would have refused). More examples:
If I hadn’t gone skiing last year, I wouldn’t have broken my leg. (But I went skiing and I broke my leg.)
What would I have done if you hadn’t helped me? (But you helped me, so I didn’t have to worry what to do.)
Will John finally pop the question (i.e. ask Susan to marry him) the next day? Find out tomorrow!
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr., E. B. White
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