Wrestling with the Spanish for ‘should have’

A shortcut to stop you tripping over your tongue

Living life with no regrets – isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be doing? Makes you wonder, then, why we spend so much time looking back to see what we, and others, “should have” done in the past.

“I should have gone earlier”. “You should have called”. “You shouldn’t have told them”. None of these recriminations get us anywhere, but they’re part of everyday life nonetheless.

But far be it from us to try and stop such silliness when you come to speaking Spanish. In fact, we’re going to do just the reverse and help you become even more efficient at dishing out “should have-ry” in your second language.

The textbook solution

Look to Spanish’s trusty old grammar rules and you’ll find a way – of sorts – to say such things.

Take our three sample sentences in the paragraph, for example. Rumour has it that these should be expressed, in Spanish, as debería haber ido más temprano, deberías haber llamado, and no deberías habérselo contado.

Perfect grammar personified.

The problem comes, as you may have already found, when you try and work this kind of sentence into a proper full-speed conversation.

With so many component parts to fit in, it’s nigh on impossible, as a learner, to get these expressions out without tripping over your tongue.

Learn to be suspicious of anything expressions like this that are too difficult to say quickly. This smacks of the overly-correct, ‘textbook Spanish’ and the chances are that there are much simpler ways to say the same thing.

The streamlined solution

This seems to be the case here too.

Rather than messing around with all those deberías and habers, why not break with the ‘proper’ grammar rules a little and go for a more streamlined, colloquial way of doing things?

In parts of mainland Spain, and some destinations in Latin America (including Colombia), you can simply use habría (usually meaning “would have”), for those times you want to say: “should have”.

OK, this might not be popular with grammar lovers and Spanish teachers as it’s technically not 100% grammatically coherent. But in some parts of the Spanish-speaking world, it’s as well understood as it is widely used.

Let’s take a look at its use in action.

Try, for instance, to advise someone that they “shouldn’t have eaten so much” and we might say, under our old habits: no deberías haber comido tanto. Quite a mouthful, so to speak.

Apply this bit of Spanish magic and it now becomes the shorter: no habrías comido tanto. Much more manageable.

“They should have paid you yesterday” could, in this same vein, be expressed: te habrían pagado ayer, instead of the more clunky te deberían haber pagado ayer.

Meanwhile, “we should have told you” would change from deberíamos habértelo dicho would transform to: te lo habríamos dicho (or te lo habríamos contado). A saving of a valuable syllable or two.

Note that this expression is not used in every part of the Spanish-speaking world (see comments below), but in those countries that do, it can be a great way to streamline your “should have”s.

Habrías leído este artículo antes, ¿no crees?

What’s your experience of the best way to say “should have” in Spanish? Have you found locals in your part of the world to use this “habría” construction? Pray tell below…