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 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." 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! 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. Jun 28, 2017 at 6:34
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    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
    Jun 29, 2017 at 18:31

1 Answer 1


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.

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