So, I've checked Is "must" ever grammatical as a past tense verb? and Past tense of "must" when meaning logical probability and I'm also almost confident that I cannot say "must had to." How can I say that?

For example, in these situations (I'm copying the examples from the wordreference forums, where they are still not answered):

But translating a story, which is already in the past tense, I came across the following problem: What if a text is already in the past, and you basically have to go one tense further back grammatically to express a surmise/conjecture about events even further back in the past than the past of the story. In other words, is there a past perfect form of "must have"?

Here's the context to make it more clear:

[…] He was walking down the street, mulling things in his head. Maria? Was it really possible that they would meet again here, in London? It must had been 10 years since they had last talked to each other […]

The trouble I'm having is that this doesn't sound quite right to me, but neither does it sound good (to me) if I substitute "must have" for "must had." In the context, it doesn't seem "past-tensey" enough, if you catch my drift. So, would the above sentence be grammatical or not?

A similar example is the following one:

[…] The truth was, Frank was not that much taller than Maria; she must somehow had made herself appear shorter […]

Should it be "must somehow have made herself appear shorter"? Again, would that be "past-tensey" enough?

3 Answers 3


Must has no past tense. Instead we use the past tense of have to. That means your first example should read It had to have been 10 years since … and the second She had somehow to have made herself appear shorter … I don't pretend that either is ideal.

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    *She had somehow to have made herself appear shorter is ungrammatical; hasta and hadta hafta be together. They can't be separated. So somehow could go after have, or after herself, or after shorter; but not between had and to. Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 21:48
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    Technically speaking you're right, but I think OP is straining at a gnat here. Okay, there's nothing seriously awkward about your first "grammatically correct" alternative "had to have been", but if OP buys into "had somehow to have made" I think he's really swallowing a two-humped camel! Me, I'd just stick with "must have" and ignore the supposed "tense mismatch". Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 22:03
  • @John: OMG! - this is twice in one day I'm forced to disagree with you! 14500 instances in Google Books rather suggests you can use had somehow to. I don't know of any "rule of grammar" says you can't - and nor do those writers, obviously. Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 22:09
  • @Barrie England - Agree. "Had to have been thinking" is a viable alternative to "must have been thinking". Same goes for "she had to have"...Although that one really hurts. Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 22:11
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    I don’t care where ‘somehow’ goes. I preserved the OP’s word order to illustrate the use of ‘had to’. Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 8:52

There is no alternative to "must have". All modals, without exception, are always followed by the bare infinitive. I could write several pages on why this might be so, but no one would be any the wiser. Suffice it to say that some things should simply be learned as properties of the language. Modal + Infinitive is one such instance.

In the particular case of "must", you might want to consider that in expressing an assumption the assumption itself is always formulated (if not expressed) in the present. "John had thought". Is a report on a past event about a prior event. Thus, past perfect.

"John must have thought" is an assumption formulated in the present about a past event. A perfect case for the present perfect, which serves to bridge the present and the past. One, in fact, is going one tense back, from present when the observation of what John must have been thinking was first articulated to past (when John in fact had been thinking something).

In this case, "must" has taken us to a meta-level of sorts: The observer is observing the observer.

  • What about reported speech? How do we shift Marry says John must have been thinking to the past? If Marry said.
    – olegst
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 9:50

Full disclosure: I'm not a professional linguist or philologist. Just a guy who asks a lot of questions and is a life-long learner. So, I will be offering what little I can contribute in hopes that it helps others.

As a writer and a native American-English speaker I would say that must have is the most appropriate and common construction for this type of situation (although I cannot comment on its technical/grammatical correctness).

In your example:

The truth was, Frank was not that much taller than Maria; she must somehow had made herself appear shorter

It would look better and, I think, convey the same meaning to write thusly:

The truth was, Frank was not that much taller than Maria; she must have somehow made herself appear shorter

Here's another example:

When he was stationed in Marrakesh during the War, Frank used to walk down to the shore, stand in the breeze with his toes caressing the sand, and recall how Maria would always say "I love you" in that soft, whispery way.

In this example, the narrator refers to something Frank used to do in the past (think about Maria on the beach), and what he thought about was something that happened in the past relative to his perspective in this past circumstance in Marrakesh.

Here's another example just for fun:

When Elvis flew B1-Bombers during the war he would put the bird on autopilot on occasion and play up to three hands of gin rummy with his copilot, Bob "Booger" Matthisen. Bob couldn't help but regale Mr. Presley with tales of his time as a deep sea fisherman and had to fight off all manner of beasts including great whites and giant squid.

There are just two examples of how you can convey what I was call nested levels of past referencing.

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