5 Perfect Modals in Songs
Let’s start with a song today. Pay particular attention to the title and the structure “should have known.” Have you seen that before? Check out the video:
We’ve recently been talking about perfect modals in one of the classes I teach, so I thought I’d do a post about them today. We’ll look at a quick explanation of perfect modals, and then check out a few songs that use them.
But first, what is a “perfect modal”? This is a pretty advanced grammar topic, but I’ll try to use simple explanations today. Perfect modals are not actually “perfect,” but they are called that because they use a modal verb (in this case, could, should, might/may, must) followed by a perfect tense construction (“have” + past participle). Perfect modals are used to talk past actions.
You can go here for another quick explanation, too. Let’s take a closer look at these!
We use the structure “should + have + (participle)” when we are reacting to a past event or giving our opinion about it. Obviously, it’s in the past, so we can’t change it. But we can still talk and think about it. For example, in the Foo Fighters song, the singer didn’t know something. But when he says “I should have known,” he’s reflecting on that. He’s expressing that it was a problem that he didn’t know: he should have known. We can also make this negative by changing “should” to “shouldn’t.”
John failed his exam.
We could react to that situation and say something like:
“John should have studied more.” OR
“John shouldn’t have played so many video games.“
This is a bit confusing for some people. The structure is basically the same, but we just replace “should” with “could.” We use this when we’re talking about a past event, but giving a different possible result. Let’s look at this song and see if you can find the structure (here are the lyrics):
In this song, the person they’re talking about died at 24 years of age. The title says “it could have been a brilliant career.” In other words, in reality, it was NOT a brilliant career, but it could have been one if he had lived longer. Notice that this is very similar to the 3rd conditional tense.
Here are two more songs that use this structure. Can you find examples of it?
And here’s one by Meat Loaf, one of my favorite crazy singers:
Kate went surfing, but she’s a very bad swimmer. Fortunately, nothing happened to her.
Nothing happened to her, but we can still imagine alternate scenarios (just imagine that you’re her nervous mother):
“She could have drowned!” OR
“She could have fallen off her surfboard and been bitten by a shark!“
Remember, “should have” and “could have” do NOT reflect reality; they only consider different past scenarios and results. The next two examples DO reflect reality:
When we use this structure, we’re still talking about a past event, but in this case, it DOES reflect reality. We’re giving our ideas about possible realities.
For example, Shelly normally eats a sandwich for lunch, but today we saw her eating a salad. We can use this structure to talk about why she ate a salad and not a sandwich:
“She might have wanted to eat something different for a change.” OR
“She may have forgotten to buy bread at the store.“
There are many ways to use this structure, but all of them display our guess about the reasons something happened. It’s a possible explanation, but we’re NOT 100% certain.
If we ARE 100% certain (or at least very convinced), then we use “must have.“
When we use “must have,” it’s very similar to “might/may have,” but in this case we’re just more certain. Check out this song:
In the song, something happened in the past. Was it love? It’s difficult to say, but according to Roxette, it almost certainly was: It must have been love. We can also play with this a bit:
If Roxette thinks it was maybe love, but they’re not sure, they could say: “It might have been love.“
If Roxette knows it wasn’t love, but are imagining a different scenario (for example, if Richard Gere had a dog-face), they could say: “It could have been love” (but it wasn’t because Julia Roberts could never love a dog-faced Richard Gere).
And finally, if it wasn’t love, but they want to give their opinion about it, they can say something like: “Richard Gere should have gotten plastic surgery to make Julia Roberts fall in love with him.” He didn’t, but we can still give advice and analysis about a past event.
So, that’s a lot of information to digest. I guess I could have divided this into different posts, but I wanted to share these 5 songs with you –and my students have an exam today, so maybe they can do some last-minute studying!
Thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or ideas you want to contribute. Or maybe you just want to mention which song you liked best, or tell me other songs I should have used instead of these. Either way, your comments are welcome.
Have a good day!
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