What is the way to say that something "should be done" in the past?

I know there is a "should have" structure, but it is used for situations, when something was to be done in the past, but it wasn't. E.g. "You should have called me yesterday. Why didn't you?"

So, would it be correct to say "It should have been done" in a situation when something was to be done and in fact it WAS DONE?

  • Not entirely clear: do you mean some equivalent of It was the right thing to do? Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 10:05
  • I understand where you're coming from - "It should have been done" and certainly "You should have done..." carry at least overtones of censure. However, "It should have been done" meaning "There was a moral obligation to do it" can be a mere statement of one's view on a matter, without an implication that someone has failed in their duty. "It needed doing" is the more usual way of saying it, and carries less hint of censure (if stated in level tones). Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 10:06
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    There's a (possibly Gricean) invited inference of non-occurrence with should have, as the OP points out. The question is whether it's cancellable, and I think it isn't. So the best solution for a perfective deontic necessity modal is to use the paraphrase for must, the strong necessity modal, which is have to, as Colin suggests. Of course, this loses the weak/strong necessity distinction between should and must, but then there's already an added distinction with the perfective; adding complexity in one sense often loses it in another. Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 13:16

1 Answer 1


You're right, that should have usually carries the implication that it didn't happen.

It had to be done.

is what I would say.

  • But couldn't, "it had to be done", imply it was necessary, in the past, for this action to be completed. Not necessarily the action was performed and completed. I would have said: "It had had to be done."
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 11:26
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    It depends on context. If you're in the middle of a narrative in the past, and talking about what a character is thinking, then it had to be done would mean that there was a necessity, but the doing was in the future at that point, so it was not known whether it would be carried out. But in the normal case, looking from the present, it had to be done implies that it was done. (The implication might be explicitly overridden: it had to be done ... but there was nobody to do it). Your it had had to be done is different - that's in the past looking back to an earlier past.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 13:10
  • Thanks it's clearer now. Context makes sense of almost everything.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 13:19

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