Perhaps you’ve seen this expression in English before. Perhaps you’ve seen each word used individually, but never put together. Or perhaps you’ve never seen any of these words being put to use at all. Let’s start, then, by explaining each term individually.
We all know how the English language likes a good abbreviation. From ‘you’re’ to ‘would’ve’, it implements them both in writing and in speaking. Normally, when we see a verb (in this case modal verbs) ending in ‘a’, we assume that it’s an abbreviation between said verb and the preposition to. For example: wanna — want to; gonna — going to; etc.
However, in this case, each of these is the abbreviation of a modal verb (could, should, would) with the auxiliary verb ‘have’. The combination of a modal verb and have plus a third main verb in its past participle form is called a modal perfect.
What are these modal perfects for? We use them when we want to refer to a hypothetical turn of events in the past. That is to say, when we wish we could change something but can’t because it has already happened. For example:
“I failed the test. I should have studied more.” (but I didn’t)
“If I had known, I would have been prepared.” (but I wasn’t)
“Things could have been different.” (but they weren’t)
And so the combination of these abbreviations of modal perfects creates an expression (the order of the words sometimes changes to ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’, ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’, etc., but the meaning is always the same) that indicates there is no point in think about which things could have been different in the past because it doesn’t change the result.
This expression can be implemented into all kinds of contexts. We can use it either to indicate that we should have thought before acting so we could have prevented a mistake, or to indicate that there is no point in feeling sorry for what we did wrong because the past is the past.
Here are a couple of examples to help illustrate both those scenarios:
PERSON A: I’m sorry, I wish I hadn’t done that.
PERSON B: Ah, coulda, shoulda, woulda.
In this case, PERSON B is not accepting PERSON A’s apology because it’s too late to take back what they did.
PERSON A: This project was a disaster.
PERSON B: Well, coulda, shoulda, woulda. We’ll do a better job next time.
In this case, PERSON B is indicating that there is no point lamenting what went wrong and that instead they should focus on not making the same mistakes next time.
There’s a chance you will also find this expression used as a noun, more specifically, as a synonym of regret, a what-if, or things that we wish we had done differently in the past. For instance:
“My grandfather told me to enjoy the present, unlike him, who had too many coulda-shoulda-wouldas in his life.”
“I don’t know what to choose! I’m afraid I’ll have this coulda-shoulda-woulda with me forever if I make the wrong choice.”
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