I'm thinking about how the mind works, and how the mind dreams or simulates events. This seems to be an important part of how the brain works so it seems like we should have special words to describe these thoughts.

  • Could (imagined different available possibilities)
  • Would (imagined most likely possibility given a situation)
  • Should (imagined a better possibility for some criteria)

e.g. "I could've gone to the park today.", "I would've won the race if my legs were longer.", "I should've chosen the strawberry icecream."

I wondered if there are any more words like this? Which would give us an insight into how imagination works. For example, we might imagine a chess computer thinking of possible moves it could do, imagining what an oponent would do, and then if it lost thinking about what it should have done.

I can think of one more. That is "might". But I'm not sure how this fits in. For example, "If I annoy a kangaroo it might punch me." But then again, a kangaroo could punch me even if I don't annoy it. It seems like it's the same as "could" but just with a higher probability. Then again this might be to do with truth. As in "It might've happened" seems different to "It could've happened".

  • Might've (imagined a possible past event that is consistent with current knowledge of the present)
  • Might (same as "could?" for future events?)
  • 4
    These are modal verbs. Is your question limited only to English?
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 13, 2019 at 23:28
  • Modal verbs are notoriously difficult to analyze, because they are used so diversely. Comparison of languages is definitely informative. could is underspecified, might as well be simple past in your first example, and a misapplication in the second, where can works equally well, unless an intent is supposed "no, I can't do that, I will lose if I do". Only should have done correctly reflects a modal past perfect. may ~ might compared to German mag ~ *mächte (pret. mochte, subjunct möchte) seems to be from "I might, may I?" as a polite form of "want", "will to". cp oughta
    – vectory
    Sep 14, 2019 at 15:19
  • Thanks I didn't know they are called "modal verbs". Interestingly, I used the words "should", "would", "might" multiple times in the course of my question. So just goes to show how important these words are!
    – zooby
    Sep 14, 2019 at 21:09

1 Answer 1


These are all different ways of expressing mood in English. Wikipedia has an article on English modal verbs. It lists modal verbs such as those you mention in your question. English also has other ways of expressing mood without auxiliary verbs (e.g. if it be done, do this! both imply something that isn't currently the case).

Since you're interested in how the mind thinks about possible events beyond English usage in particular, you might want to look at how moods work cross-linguistically. Particularly, irrealis moods seem to be what you're interested in ("thinking about possible events").

The cases of should've, would've as opposed to should, would is a combination of mood with aspect: When you say I should... you're talking about a possible event right now; when you say I should've... you're talking about what was the case at a point in time that ended before now.

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