"Australopithecus afarensis had much longer arms and larger hands, which would have been useful for climbing trees"

(Note: Australopithecus aferencis was the early type of human beings)

again "would" involved sentence and again I'm facing a high dose of perplexity - What kind of sense an author wanted to give to the sentence by using "would have" construction? I mean, couldn't we replace the "would have been" with "was" here?

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    It forms a conjecture about a past event. It means something like "... which [scientists believe] would have been useful ..."
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 15:48
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    you mean an author thinks that the longer arms together with larger hands would have probably be useful for climbing trees? then could we replace it with "was" to suggest certainty ? Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 16:00
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    No, because it's a conjecture, not an absolute statement of fact. The truth is, they would have been useful, but to say that they were useful would imply a lot of other specific evidence that the longer limbs did in fact get used in this manner. Even then, scientists would admit the possibility of error in their hypothesis. This is one of the differences between a scientist and, say, a politician.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 16:05
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    Robusto is correct. The writer is making an educated assumption (guess) about how having longer arms and larger hands may have helped Australopithecus afarensis to thrive. No one actually knows, since there is no written record. So you are also correct that if we replace "would have been" with "was," it would suggest a certainty that we don't possess. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 16:10
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    Clouds don't run (and that's a certainty).
    – MorganFR
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 16:28

1 Answer 1


Would can be the proper word depending on the context. Did Australopithecus afarensis climb trees? If not, then would is being correctly used in the excerpt. Another possibility is that we don't know whether Australopithecus afarensis climbed trees. In this case, would also works as signifying possibility. Otherwise, was would be the correct answer ;).


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