What is the difference between how could you do and how could have you done when used to express critisism or annoyance? For example:

You took Dad's car without asking. How could you do that!

You took Dad's car without asking. How could you have done that!

1 Answer 1


It's probably worth flagging up the big difference in actual usage first...

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Many people might say we avoid the more complex Present Perfect version simply because it's unnecessarily complex, and leave it at that. But I think the difference in prevalence is so great that most native speakers would notice if a competent speaker used the less common form.

Hence the less common Perfect form is "marked", which naturally makes us to look for some alternative to the "standard" meaning. And to my mind, the obvious distinction to make is...

1: How could you do that?
= "rhetorical question" - speaker is expressing shock / disapproval that you did it

2: How could you have done that?
= "genuine question" - speaker wants to know how it was possible for you to do it

(Of course, no such inference should be made if the speaker isn't a native Anglophone.)

  • I am bit confused because Swan's 4th edition of Practical English Usage he says the perfect form can be used to express critisism. Commented May 2, 2020 at 12:42
  • Are you perhaps referring to Swan's example 124/7 (addressing can/could usages) - You could have told me you were getting married. That's not relevant here, but if you can give me a specific reference to Swan I'll look at it (note that I only have 3rd edition, so give me enough text that I can search and find it, not just a page number that will have changed! :) Commented May 2, 2020 at 13:12
  • That is exactly the Swan's example I was talking about). Could you explain why is that not relevant? Commented May 2, 2020 at 13:22
  • In You could have looked that up yourself! (an obviously "critical" utterance), could implies not only that it was possible for you to do that, but also that you should have done it. But the implication of "criticism" is entirely to do with the word could, not the Perfect verb form. Go back and check Swan - the other example there is You could ask before you borrow my car, which still includes the word could meaning should, but there's no Perfect form in that one. Commented May 2, 2020 at 16:18

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