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Would Have vs. Could Have: What's the Difference?

Edited by Harlon Moss || By Janet White || Published on November 6, 2023
"Would Have" expresses a missed situation in the past based on a condition, while "Could Have" indicates a past possibility that did not happen. Both convey non-occurring past events but differ in likelihood and intent.

Key Differences

"Would Have" is an expression used when we talk about a situation or event that was possible or likely in the past but did not actually happen. It’s often used in third conditional sentences, which are generally hypothetical or unreal past conditionals. For example, "If I had known about the party, I would have gone," the speaker didn’t know about the party, and therefore, did not go. It always implies a set condition that was not met.
Conversely, "Could Have" is used to express a possibility in the past that did not happen or to criticize a situation or event. For instance, "You could have told me about the party," implies that the person had the opportunity to tell about the party but did not. It doesn’t always refer to a set condition in the past and sometimes only denotes a missed past possibility without a specified condition.
"Would Have" typically contains an implication of a specified condition that was not satisfied in the past. This means it’s directly tied to a scenario or event that did not transpire, due to the non-fulfillment of that condition. For example, “She would have attended the meeting, if she wasn’t sick,” which implies a straightforward condition (her not being sick) that wasn’t met.
On the other hand, "Could Have" expresses a past possibility that was viable but didn’t take place, without always pinpointing a particular unmet condition. It might imply some regret, missed opportunities, or criticism over past actions. In saying "He could have helped her," it doesn’t mention a specific condition but notes a missed possibility.
In some instances, "Would Have" is utilized in a more structured and definitive manner to express particular scenarios that did not come to pass because of certain conditions. It's often used in contexts where we’re imagining or hypothesizing about what might have happened under different circumstances.
While "Could Have" gives a more generalized past possibility or missed opportunities without diving into specifics. It tends to be used in scenarios where there is an indication of missed past opportunities, without an emphasis on specific conditions that were not fulfilled.

Comparison Chart

Basic Use

Indicates an unreal, conditional past event.
Indicates a past possibility that didn’t occur.


Typically involves a specific condition.
Doesn’t always reference a specific condition.

Implied Nuance

Often implies a more likely event.
Sometimes indicates regret or reproach.

Common Use Cases

Third conditional sentences.
Expressing unreal past possibilities.

Emotional Connotation

More neutral, less emotive.
Can imply reproach or regret.

Would Have and Could Have Definitions

Would Have

Describes a likely event in an imagined past scenario.
She would have enjoyed the concert.

Could Have

Indicates potential scenarios or outcomes that were possible in the past.
It could have rained yesterday, but it was sunny.

Would Have

Indicates a past action dependent on an unreal condition.
I would have visited if I had known you were sick.

Could Have

Indicates capability in the past without actualization.
He could have won the race, but he fell.

Would Have

Used to express unreal past wishes.
I would have liked to see that movie.

Could Have

Expresses a possible past event that did not occur.
She could have called, but she didn’t.

Would Have

Communicates regret about a past event.
I would have taken a different route if I’d known about the traffic.

Could Have

Used to criticize a non-action in the past.
You could have warned me about the detour.

Would Have

Used to express intentions unfulfilled due to certain circumstances.
I would have called, but it was too late.

Could Have

Suggests a past possibility not aligned with what actually happened.
We could have been great together.


How is "Would Have" used in conditional sentences?

"Would Have" is often used in third conditional sentences, expressing unreal past situations.

Is "Could Have" used in conditional sentences like "Would Have"?

"Could Have" can appear in conditional sentences but is not limited to them, unlike "Would Have."

How do you use "Would Have" in a question?

In questions, place "Would" before the subject: "Would you have attended the party?"

Can "Would Have" imply regret?

Yes, "Would Have" can imply regret about a non-occurring event that was dependent on an unmet condition.

What is the negative form of "Would Have"?

The negative form is "Would Not Have," often contracted as "Wouldn’t Have."

Can "Would Have" be used without "Have" in some instances?

No, "Would" alone changes the meaning; "Would Have" specifically refers to past unreal conditions.

What does "Would Have" typically express?

"Would Have" usually expresses a non-occurring action or event in the past, based on an unfulfilled condition.

How is "Could Have" generally used?

"Could Have" is used to indicate a possible event or action in the past that did not actually happen.

Is "Could Have" utilized to indicate criticism?

Yes, "Could Have" can be used to criticize or express regret about a past non-action or possibility.

What is the negative form of "Could Have"?

The negative form is "Could Not Have," often shortened to "Couldn’t Have."

Can "Would Have" be used without a specific condition?

Typically, "Would Have" is used in contexts where a specific condition is implied, even if not explicitly stated.

Does "Could Have" always pertain to a regretful context?

No, "Could Have" can express a neutral past possibility without necessarily implying regret.

Is "Could" interchangeable with "Could Have"?

No, "Could" and "Could Have" are different; "Could Have" specifically refers to past unreal possibilities.

Are "Would Have" and "Could Have" formal or informal?

Both can be used in formal and informal contexts but may be more common in informal speech.

Does "Would Have" imply a more likely event than "Could Have"?

"Would Have" often suggests something was more likely or expected in a hypothetical past than "Could Have."

Can "Could Have" imply capability without action?

Yes, "Could Have" can suggest someone was capable of doing something but chose not to.

Can "Would Have" and "Could Have" be used interchangeably?

While both can refer to past non-occurrences, they are not always interchangeable due to differing nuances.

How is "Would Have" used in reported speech?

"Would Have" can remain the same or change to "Had" in reported speech, depending on the reporting verb.

Is "Could Have" used differently in American and British English?

Generally, "Could Have" is used similarly in both American and British English, with few contextual differences.

How is "Could Have" formulated in a question?

The word "Could" precedes the subject in questions: "Could she have done it sooner?"
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.

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