Grammar-QuizzesVerb PhrasesVerb GroupsModals › Could have vs. Should have

Could have vs. Should have

Offer options and advice after an event has occurred




Options and Advice of Past Events

After a disaster, such as the sinking of the Titanic, people analyze options that were available at the time.  Then they recommend changes so that accidents can be avoided in the future.


Could have and Should have


Could have expresses an opinion or suggestion for a past option not chosen. Other hypothetical choices are discussed after a tragedy in order to avoid a re-occurrence.


Passengers could have taken other smaller transatlantic ships.

The captain could have chosen a more southern transatlantic route.

The owners could have pressed designers to include more safety flotation compartments.

Watchmen could have asked the captain to slow down due to fog.


Should have expresses an opinion or advice for a past situation. After other hypothetical options are considered, the best option(s) is/are selected as advice.


The owners should have supplied enough lifeboats for everyone.

The captain should have insisted on better emergency preparation.

The passengers should have asked about the number of lifeboats.

The captain should have been cruising more slowly in the northern ship lanes.


Could have is used for alternative options.  There are many things that could have been done.  Maybe, they would have made a difference, maybe not.

Should have is used for the best option. This is / these are the key, most important, things that would have made a difference.  (After the Titanic Inquiry, they became recommendations for changes in maritime rules.)







Could Have

Lost Opportunity




Could have — had the opportunity, but didn't take it


1)  Offer more life jackets.

2)  Hold emergency practices.

3) Keep in contact with other ships in the area.


The owners could have supplied more life jackets. (but they didn't)

The captain could have held emergency practices. (but he didn't)

The captain could have radioed other ships in the area to ask about iceberg sightings. (but he didn't)


sighting  (N) – previous seeing, experience of seeing




One expression with two meanings


The captain could have refused help. 
Maybe he did, maybe he didn't.

The Titanic could have been off course, too far north.
Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't.

The captain of the ship Californian could have ignored the call.
Maybe he did, maybe he didn't.


The captain could have refused to pilot the ship.
but he didn't.

The captain could have held emergency practices.
but he didn't.

The White Star Line could have supplied more boats.
but they didn't.






Should Have

Late Advice




Should have — advice given after-the-fact


1) Include more life boats and better deployment  (lowering them)


2) Require faster emergency response from other ships in the area.


3) Be more watchful in shipping lanes where icebergs exist.


The owners should have had enough space in the lifeboats for everyone on board. 

The crew should have known how to lower the boats even if the ship was tipping over.

The captains of the Californian and Carpathia should have had their radios on. 

They should have responded to distress flares that were shot in the sky.

The captain should have listened to earlier reports of icebergs in the area.


See Could / Should - Grammar Notes.






Practice 1

Opportunities Not Taken

poster for Titanic


  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "Check" or the "Check 1-10" button.


White Star Lines spent more money on advertising than safety.

White Star Lines advertised the Titanic as "unsinkable".

Reports of iceberg sightings in northern shipping lanes had been received before their departure.

The captain couldn't stop in time, so he turned the ship away from the iceberg. Because of this, the iceberg destroyed flotation compartments on the right side of the ships.

impact (N) – crash

The captain waited to see if the flotation compartments could keep the ship up.  As he did, he lost valuable time.

Before leaving, crew members were required to practice lowering lifeboats, but they lowered only two of the sixteen, and not all crew members were present yet.
emergency drills lowering all the lifeboats will all the crew members.

Californian: "We are stopped and surrounded by ice." the ship when a nearby ship Californian radioed that they were surrounded by ice floes.

Collision with Iceberg

sailing on the Titanic's "maiden" (first) voyage.
hastily (adv.) – quickly, not well put together or thought out

or believed their ship to be "unsinkable".

that it would be their last voyage.


"How the Titanic Worked"