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I was told by a reliable source that "J'aurais dû partir plus tôt" means "I should have left sooner." So how do you say, "I must have left sooner."? Or "I would have left sooner."

The question here is about I "should have", vs “would have”, vs “must have”. The “left sooner” could be any verb. e.g. “I should have purchased”, “I must have purchased”, “I would have purchased” are the same question.

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"Should have" is something you didn't do, you would translate it this way :

J'aurais dû partir plus tôt [pour être à l'heure à la réunion]

"must have" is something you did, and had no choice, you would translate it this way :

J'ai dû partir plus tôt [pour aller chercher ma fille à l'école]

"would have" is something you didn't do, but you couldn't, you would translate it this way :

Je serais parti plus tôt [si j'avais pu]

  • Is "must have" often used in English ? Because it seems a bit odd to me. As a French speaker, I would have translated "J'ai dû partir plus tôt" as "I had to leave sooner". Is that wrong ? – Eria Jan 15 '16 at 8:18
  • And you need to be careful translating "I would have" as "Je serais/J'aurais" : it is past conditional and many people, including many French native speaker, tend to use it in the whole sentence. Like "si j'aurais pu, je serais parti plus tôt", which is wrong (and horrible to hear when you love your native language). You should employ pluperfect in the part containing the condition : "si j'avais pu, je serais parti plus tôt". – Eria Jan 15 '16 at 8:27
  • @Eria Indeed, many speakers (often young ones) are mistakening saying "Si j'aurais pu". – Random Jan 15 '16 at 8:37
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Thanks for the reply @Random.

It's been awhile now, but in response to your question @Eria - we use "must have" quite often in English, but not actually in the manner described by @Random. "J'ai dû" could be translated two different ways in English, depending on what it means:

  1. "Had to" - Something you did, having no other choice. I would concur with your translation of "J'ai dû partir plus tôt" (I had to leave sooner/earlier).

  2. "Must have" - Something that we know/think happened a certain way, based on inference.

For instance, if my friend had the flu when we met up, and soon after I fell sick as well, he might say to me:

"J'ai dû te la refiler!" (I must have given it to you!)

I hope it makes more sense in that context.

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