The Roman readers, many of whom would at one time have been in the army, would have had no trouble with Caesar's austere narrative; they would have found it complete as it is. They would have known how to read the shorthand.  -V S Naipaul

My question is what changes in meaning will occur if I use might have or the simple past instead of would have. What does would have mean in a sentence which does not have an if clause? It seems that Naipaul has not used would have for an unreal past.

Commonly, we use would have + past participle to talk about something you wanted to do but didn't. This is nearly similar to the third conditional, but we don't need an 'if clause'.

  1. I would have called you, but I did not have your number.

But in Naipaul's paragraph, the Roman Readers "were" in the army and there was no "did not" there.

  • It is unclear what your concern is with Naipaul's paragraph. Would have found is the conditional perfect form of the verb find, and it merely describes the finding as taking place in the postulated Roman past that is Naipaul's milieu here. Would is not used in this paragraph as the past form of the modal will. If you believe that Naipaul uses would have incorrectly here, please use the edit link to tell us why. This will help us to provide a useful answer Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 5:32
  • Many of the Roman readers "were" in the army. There's no "but didn't" here. I am not in the position to find faults in Naipaul's grammar. I just simply ask what if he would have used "might have", instead of "would have." Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 5:50
  • Please use the edit link to tell us, in your question, what you mean by "There's no 'but didn't' here." This will create a much more complete question! Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 5:55
  • The addition to your question makes your misunderstanding clear. You mention the irrealis use of would, but would is also used to form the conditional "tense" of English verbs. That is Naipauls's use here. No intention or desire is framed in "many of whom would at one time have been in the army." This is just the perfect conditional form of the verb to be. See, for instance, here. Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 6:34
  • 1
    The usage indicates that these are things that he is deducing, not things that are necessarily facts. If I say, for instance, yesterday my bother drove to work so he had the chance to stop and get gas I am implying that I know that statement to be a fact. If I say yesterday my brother would have driven to work so he would have had the chance to try and get gas the implication is that I don't have direct factual evidence but am basing my conclusion on what I can deduce from what I know about his patterns and where he lives.
    – Brillig
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 18:31

3 Answers 3


To answer your exact question:

"The Roman readers, many of whom would at one time have been in the army.." Means that many of the Roman readers were at one time in the army, but are not necessarily in the army now. "would" and the future perfect are being used here as a conditional with "at one time" to describe the potentially completed action of having been in the army.

"The Roman readers, many of whom might at one time have been in the army.." Means that many of the Roman readers could have been in the army. The subjunctive mood is being used to indicate a hypothetical.

"The Roman readers, many of whom were in the army...." Means that many of the Roman readers were in the army at the time they were reading the text.


The four "would have"s are providing a temporal point of view.

"They knew how to read the shorthand." is written in the simple past tense, the same way most fiction is written, to give an immediacy to something that happened, as if it had just happened a second ago: "I opened the door. I entered the room. Then I saw the man with the gun. … .".

"They would have known how to read the shorthand." makes it feel more like you are temporarily back there with them, observing the situation rather than the action. Compare with: If you had been there in person, you would have seen that they knew how to read the shorthand.

  • I'm the one who upvoted this answer. I seem to be a really good listener to it. It also seems that it was written shortly after I wrote my answer. It appears to be using an idea from my answer. For this purpose, it answers the question and it makes no difference how you got there. But when you're in a job where the task is to think independently, you want to do that and not just blindly follow what other people said. Of course, the thing you derive through thinking independently could happen to be a similar thing. We have to keep thinking independently of the past for ever to not deteriorate.
    – Timothy
    Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 6:02
  • @Timothy The ideas in the answer by Ray Butterworth seem to me to be significantly clearer and significantly different from those in your answer, and to form a significantly better answer to the question. The key idea in Ray's answer is that the paragraph assumes a "temporary point of view", a moment when a typical Roman was reading Ceasar's work. I don't see anything that seems similar to that idea in your answer. Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 19:24

Actually, the answer came to me first and then Google searching this question followed. When somebody has in in their destiny that if a certain environment happens, they would do things a certain way, it is a potential future branch. It's very strange and wierd English grammer. Franch grammer would probably say "If it will happen." which makes more sense but maybe Englsh isn't like that because in envisioning it, it's as if it's now and not later. The future is in the future and hasn't been decided so theoretically, it's possible that that's actually what the outside environment is gonna throw them later. Their destiny is about a potential real future branch with them reacting a certain way. Sometimes there is more than one potential future branch. They might have it in their destiny that if a certain one happens, they would do things a certain way. That doesn't mean the outside environment is actually gonna throw you that one instead of another one. If it throws you another one, then once it is the later time, you look back at what was in your destiny at that time which was "If it goes that way, that is what I would do." Now that it is in the past, you literally want the past tense of the sentence "If it goes that way, that is what I would do." And English has one. It is the sentence "If it went that way, that's what I would have done."

  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 6:33
  • I don't have that but I thought I was able to use my brains to figure out the answer. This answer seems clearly and obviously true. Maybe it's easier to check the answer's contents and verify just from what it says that it is true than it is to churn up an answer in the first place.
    – Timothy
    Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 18:54

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