In English, the pattern [could/should/would + have done] is used for fictional expressions contrary to the fact, e.g.

You could have done your work yesterday (but you have not).

How to express such modalities in Latin?

For the could have done case, I think of fecisse potui which is parallel to the English pattern, but I am not sure of its legality in Latin.

For the should have done, a workaround using imperfect subjunctive is given in this post. I also consider using a gerundive with fuit, but I am not sure if it is legal, either. Are there any other ways?

1 Answer 1


Even if these expressions (“woulda, shoulda, coulda”) look very similar in English, it is probably helpful to look at two things separately:

Would have is a true counterfactual, and since the “would have” clause is really the apodosis of a condition contrary to fact in past time, you just do it by the book and use the pluperfect subjunctive. To quote a famous adage:

Si tacuisses, philosophus manisses.
If you had kept silent, you would have remained a philosopher.

There are a few cases where the indicative is used even though you might say “would have” in English; some of these are not so clear-cut counterfactual conditions:

  • The perfect indicative is usually used with paene (almost), e.g. paene dixi. (This is often explicitly pointed out in grammars written for German speakers. I guess to English speakers it comes naturally.)
  • With impersonal phrases expressing some sort of propriety judgement, like: “it would have been better, it would have been just,” etc., the indicative is used: melius fuit, iustum erat, &c. This also applies in the present tense: Longum est omnia enumerare proelia (Nepos, Hannibal 5; thankfully Nepos really spares us a list of all the battles, so this must be translated as: “it would take too long”).
  • With negated expressions of belief, like numquam putavi (I would never have thought), melius quam putaveram (better than I would have thought), and with rhetorical question like quis umquam putavit? (Who would ever have thought?)

While German grammars tend to belabour this point quite a bit (for example Hermann Menge here), I could not find much in Allen & Greenough besides this anodyne little paragraph. This is perhaps due to English being more flexible and closer to Latin with such expressions (“I almost lost my keys,” “I never thought I'd see the day”).

Could have and should have are not really counterfactual. When I say, “you could have done your work yesterday,” I mean you really were able to. Therefore, while it may give English (and German, and others) speakers a pause, it only makes sense that Latin uses the indicative perfect, imperfect or pluperfect here, e.g. pensum heri absolvere potuisti, and similarly: hoc facere debuisti, faciendum fuit etc.

According to Menge, you use the perfect and pluperfect to indicate that the situation does not continue to the present or to the time of the narration: hoc facere potuisti – you could have done it, but now it's too late; hoc facere potueras – you could have done it, but by then it was too late; hoc facere poteras – you could have done it already, but you still can.

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