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Hi, welcome to a new episode of The Art of Business English. This week we are going to take a look at past modal verbs. This is an extension of last week’s episode on modals. If you didn’t get a chance to see that one, then you can review it by clicking here.

So, let’s turn to past modal verbs. What are they? Well, they are important to make deductions and to show different levels of certainty about past events. Also, they are used to express criticism or unfulfilled wishes. Using these verbs correctly will help you to get moving in the right direction to speak English naturally.

The general form for using past modals is: modal + have + past participle

Now let’s start learning how to use them in business contexts!

Must have

We use “must have” + past participle when we feel sure about what happened.


“Our security system shows that he swiped in with his badge at 8:14 AM, so he must have been in the office yesterday.”

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May have/might have

We can use “might have” or “may have” + past participle to speculate about the past.


“If I had known about the traffic problems, I might have taken a different route to reach the office on time.”

“New entrants may have less access to capital than existing companies.”

Could have

“Could have” means that something was possible in the past, but it did not happen.


“Do you think we could have avoided the economic crisis if we had taken greater precaution?”

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Can't have/couldn't have

We use “can't have” and “couldn't have” + past participle when we think it's not possible that something happened. “Can’t have” has a stronger meaning than “couldn’t have” i.e., almost impossible.


“They can’t have finished the project yet because they only started working on it this week.”

“Our new hire is exactly what we needed. We couldn’t have asked for a better employee.”

Should have

“Should have” means that something did not happen, but we wish it had happened. We use “should have” to talk about past mistakes.


“I’m not a fan of their logo. I think they should have changed it years ago.”

Shouldn't have

We can use “shouldn’t have” when commenting on past errors or to criticise past behaviour.


“They shouldn’t have hired the mayor’s nephew; he’s too young.”

Final thoughts

So, that’s a quick overview of past modal verbs and how we use them in English. What I have discovered is that they are very similar in use to Spanish, and they can be translated quite easily too. I always encourage my students to start using them, as once you start feeling comfortable using them, your English and they way you can discuss events in the past becomes so much easier and much more descriptive.

As always, if you have further questions or if you would like some advice, please leave me a comment on the blog or send me a message on Speakpipe.

If you would like to learn more grammar like this, then why don’t you enrol in one of my general English courses. We cover this grammar and a lot more.

Take care until next week.

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Andrew is the CEO and founder of the Art of Business English. Besides teaching and coaching native Spanish speakers in Business English, he is also passionate about mountain biking, sailing and healthy living. When He is not working, Andrew loves to spend time with his family and friends.

Andrew Ambrosius

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