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Understanding and Using Modal Verbs (#16), by Dennis Oliver

 
 

Modal Verbs #16:
Individual Modal Verbs

 

The English modal verbs are often challenging for learners
of English. This happens for many reasons, including both
grammar and meaning.

In this Hint, we'll take a look at could have.


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Could Have
(possibility in the past)

 

We know from earlier Hints that could has many uses. Several
of them are used for present or future time, but
could is also
used to show ability in the past.

Could also has another past form--could have. This form is
followed by the
past participle of the main verb:

could have been / could have gone / could have finished /
could have seen / could have done / could have taken / etc.

When could is used in this way, it refers to possibility in the
past. It does
not refer to ability or permission in the past.

Examples:


I don't know why Bill left early. He
could have had
some kind of emergency, I suppose.

(I don't know why Bill left early. Maybe he had
some kind of emergency.)

__________________________________________


I'm not sure where I met her. It could have been at a party
or it
could have been been at a business meeting.

(I don't remember where I met her. Maybe I met her
at a party or maybe I met her at a business meeting.)

__________________________________________


I know he was at home, but he didn't answer the phone.
He
could have been asleep or taking a shower, I suppose.

(I know he was at home, but he didn't answer the phone.
Maybe he was asleep or taking a shower.
)


_____________________________________

Couldn't Have
(impossibility in the past)

 

The negative form of could have is could not have (which is
often contracted to
couldn't have). Couldn't have is also
followed by the past participle of the main verb. It's used to
show someone's feeling that something in the past is
impossible.

Examples:


You
couldn't have seen Jerry yesterday. He's been out of
town since last Tuesday!

(It's impossible for you to have seen Jerry yesterday because
he wasn't here. He's been out of town since last Tuesday!)

__________________________________________


Suzie's daughter
couldn't have drawn this. She's only
two years old!

(It's impossible for Suzie's daughter to have drawn this
because it's too sophisticated. Suzie's daughter is only
two years old!
)

__________________________________________


Bill
couldn't have written this letter. There are no spelling
mistakes, and Bill is a terrible speller!

(It's impossible for Bill to have written this letter because
there are no spelling mistakes, and Bill is a terrible speller
)


________________________________________________


Special Notes:


1.

In spoken English, could have is often contracted
to
could've. This contraction sounds like could
have
and because of this, native speakers of English
sometimes write *could of instead of could have.

Could of is incorrect.

     
2.   In spoken English, the contraction could've is
often contracted further. It sounds like "
coulda,"
but "coulda" is
not appropriate in most writing.
(You might see "coulda" in comics or in very
informal writing, but it primarily a
spoken form,
not a written form.)


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Next: more on modal verbs

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