Now you will never need to feel confused about how say you could have, would have, or should have, in Spanish. You may have at some point found yourself trying to represent these as an exact English translation and found yourself getting confused, and if you haven’t done it yet, you will – or you would have had you not found yourself here reading this post.  We’re going to show you how to construct these ideas in Spanish so you never get stuck (again).

Modal Verbs

In English, words like could, should, and would are part of a classification of words known as modal verbs. They precede the main verb of the sentence and express a necessity or possibility of doing something … ‘I could go to Spain’ or ‘I should do my homework’.  Below is a a list of the 9 most common modal verbs used in English.  Then we will look at how the same ideas are constructed in Spanish.

English modal verbs

Modal Verbs in Spanish

In Spanish, we cannot always use a direct translation of English modal verbs. When we translate into Spanish, we sometimes use specific verbs preceding the main verb and sometimes just specific tenses.

For example, deber used before a verb can mean ‘must‘ or ‘should‘ depending on how it’s conjugated; when conjugated in the present it means ‘must‘, when conjugated in the conditional it means ‘should‘.

Yo debo ir al medico = I must go to the doctor
Yo debería ir al medico = I should go to the doctor

This is similarly the case when the verb poder is used before the main verb; expressed in the present tense it means ‘can‘, in the conditional it means ‘could‘.

Yo puedo comer desayuno = I can eat breakfast
Yo podría comer desayuno = I could eat breakfast

Finally, in some cases we don’t need to use a preceding verb like poder or deber, but instead just conjugate the main verb in a specific tense.  This is the case for may, will, or would, which all use associated tenses (the subjunctive, the future, and the conditional respectively).

For example, to say ‘I will go‘, you need only conjugate the verb ir (which means ‘to go’) in the future tense – Yo iré; to say‘I would go’ it’s yo iría. There is no preceding verb in these cases.

Take a look at the following table summarizing how to translate each modal verb into Spanish.

English verb Preceding verb Conjugation of first verb Spanish
Yo … hablar
I … speak
can poder present puedo hablar I can speak
could poder conditional podría hablar I could speak
may/might – none – subjunctive hable I may speak
must deber present debo hablar I must speak
shall deber future deberé hablar I shall speak
should deber conditional debería hablar I should speak
will – none – future hablaré I will speak
would – none – conditional hablaría I would speak

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda in Spanish

Remembering what we’ve just learned, let’s add another layer of complexity.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda, while not proper English, are expressions widely recognized as referring to a hypothetical past. The difference is the additional ‘have‘ which changes the tense into the past and the past participle which changes the verb from something like eat to eaten.

I could eat breakfast –> I could have eaten breakfast

We can follow the same structure in Spanish, adding the verb ‘haber‘ (to have) and the past participle.

But it’s not exactly the same in every case. Similar to what we saw above, some cases will again use the preceding verbs poder and deber, while others simply a specific conjugation.  When we conjugate either poder or deber as preceding verbs, they are then be followed by the infinitive form of haber and the past participle of the main verb. When we conjugate verbs directly (when they don’t have a preceding verb), we conjugating haber instead of the main verb. The main verb will follow haber and be conjugated into the past participle. Let’s look at specific examples:

Could Have, Should Have, May Have, Must Have (using poder & deber)


With the conditional Tense

As we saw above, ‘could‘ and ‘should‘ used poder and deber conjugated in the conditional tense followed by the infinitive.  To construct ‘could have’ and ‘should have’ we again use these same verbs, but now just add the infinitive form of haber and then the past participle of the main verb instead of the infinitive.

Yo podría estar  = I could be
Yo podría haber estado = I could have been

Yo debería estar = I should be
Yo debería haber estado = I should have been

With the present tense

We can also use deber and poder in the present tense with the verb haber. The present tense of deber expresses ‘must’ as we saw above, so adding haber will give us ‘must have‘. When we use poder in the present tense with haber, it gives us ‘can have .. ‘ in English, but that doesn’t make sense as a literal translation … I can have gone’.  A better translation would be ‘may have‘ in this case.

Yo debo ser = I must be
Yo debo haber sido = I must have been

Yo puedo ser = I can be
Yo puedo haber sido = I may have been


Will Have, Would Have, May Have (no preceding verb)

To construct ‘will‘ and ‘would‘ we relied on neither poder or deber, but instead future and conditional conjugations respectively. This is similarly the case for ‘will have‘ and ‘would have‘ but now we conjugate the verb haber in these tenses followed by the past participle of the main verb.

Yo veré  = I will see
Yo habré visto = I will have seen

Yo vería visto = I would see
Yo habría visto = I would have seen

Some additional forms for advanced students:

Would have‘ may alternatively be constructed using the subjunctive form, rather than the conditional, in scenarios in which the subjunctive is required. Specifically, we use the subjunctive past perfect of haber and the past participle.

Yo hubiera visto = I would have seen (subjunctive)


To construct ‘may‘ we used the subjunctive.  When we use the subjunctive and add haber + the past participle, we do not quite get the idea of ‘may have’ (as we have  already seen how to construct this with poder) but we get a more specific sentiment in Spanish that is closer to the English version of ‘have ever’.

Yo haya visto = I have ever seen


See the summary in the table below for all the forms we’ve just talked about here:

Summary Table:
Could Have, Should Have, Would Have etc. in Spanish

English Spanish Yo … ido I … gone
could have poder (conditional) + haber podría haber ido I could have gone
should have deber (conditional) + haber debería haber ido I should have gone
must have deber (present) + haber debo haber ido I must have gone
may have poder (present) + haber puedo haber ido I may have gone
will have haber (future) + haber habré ido I will have gone
would have haber (conditional) /
haber (subjunctive past perfect)
habría ido /
hubiera ido
I would have gone
had ever haber (subjunctive) + haber haya ido I had ever gone

Practice: ¡Ahora tú!

Now that you’ve had a full run though on modal verbs in Spanish, test what you learned by translating the English sentences below.  Press the arrow to see the correct translation. Buena suerte :)

I must (do) exercise this week

Debo hacer ejercicio esta semana

I could eat a horse

Podría comer un caballo

I should go to see my parents this weekend

Debería ir a ver a mis padres este fin de semana (finde)

I would go to Madrid over Barcelona

Iría a Madrid antes que a Barcelona

I could have lived in Mexico last year

Podría haber vivido en Mexico el año pasado

I would have gone to private school

Habría ido a la escuela privada
Hubiera ido a la escuela privada

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