In my English reviewing paper, I have a multiple choices question like this:

Henry ___ a rich man today if he had been more careful in the past.

I filled in "would have been" and my teacher confirmed that it was correct but when I looked up answers online, "would be" was also the correct answer.

If I use "would have been" then the sentence becomes a type 3 conditional sentence. If I use "would be" then the sentence becomes a mixed conditional sentence. Both of these options seem suitable so I'm pretty confused.

I have a pretty important test coming soon so could someone explain this to me please. If I use one rather than the other, will the meaning of the sentence change?

1 Answer 1


Both constructions are correct and which one you prefer depends on how you regard Henry.

If Henry is a healthy spendthrift who is the despair of his wife, she might well confide to her sister:

Henry would be a rich man today if he had been more careful in the past.

But if Henry were on his deathbed or even en route to his own funeral, his wife might well have said:

Henry would have been a rich man today if he had been more careful in the past.

The would be construction allows for the possibility that Henry might well reform himself.

The would have been construction suggests that the speaker is looking back on Henry's life as it might have been but without the possibility of change.

It's really just a question of nuance and the speaker's point of view.

  • 1
    I pretty much agree (both versions are "okay" in OP's context, and differ only in "nuance"). But I'm not sure without the possibility of change is the primary nuance implied by the Perfect form would have been. I think it's that hypothetical / conditional would already implies "not actually real", and this is effectively emphasized by casting it in the "past" using have been (also "not real", because in this context it's more a matter of not "present", not here and now rather than specifically referencing a "previous" timeframe). Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 13:18
  • Doesn`t "today" imply a present situation = would be rich today, whereas would have been means a past situation = would have been rich, without "today"?
    – anouk
    Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 19:13
  • @anouk If you say: Hillary Clinton would have been president today if more Americans had voted for her, you are dealing with a present situation - that she is not president - even though the cause of her election defeat lies in the past. Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 19:43
  • yes, but Hillary is alive, you suggested earlier that "would have been" suggests Henry is dying or dead, I don`t understand the difference between the two.
    – anouk
    Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 20:33
  • @anouk Both situations are possible. But what both imply is that the situation can't be remedied. Henry (alive or dead) won't ever be rich and Hillary won't be president. However, as Fumblefingers points out, this is all about nuance and perspective, not grammar. Commented Feb 28, 2018 at 21:32

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