What is the use of "would have been" there? Is it still a third conditional?

This would have been unthinkable last year, when North Korea was launching missiles and testing nuclear devices.

Today, we see growing acceptance of gay marriage - something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/unthinkable http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1804/19/sn.01.html

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    I'm not sure all those "numbered conditionals" are worth knowing about (only non-native speakers ever seem to be taught stuff like that, but I don't think knowing which number category a context falls into is much help in deciding how to express it). In your context there wouldn't be any significant difference in meaning if you replaced would have been by plain was (which native speakers would often.do). Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 13:46
  • @FumbleFingers I disagree with that completely. There is in the idea of would have been the idea of: had it not been for x. We don't know what this refers to, therefore, we don't know what condition or conditional state the author is referring to. It can safely be said in general: Had it not been for some [state or condition], this would have been unthinkable when North Korea was launching its missiles.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 15:24
  • Conditionals are an important part of the human imagination. Let's not do away with them so blithely.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 15:33
  • @Lambie: I certainly would not wish to do away with conditionals so blithely. But honestly, if you changed every one of the 351 written instances of would have been unthinkable a century ago to plain was unthinkable a century ago (130 hits), I doubt there would be a single case where this had any effect whatsoever on the meaning. Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 15:44
  • ...but of course, there could be a huge difference between would have been unacceptable a century ago and was unacceptable a century ago. And yet many people would say that in many contexts, unthinkable and unacceptable could be considered "synonymous". Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 15:49

1 Answer 1


I don't believe either use-case is a conditional. There are no condition clauses in these sentences. A conditional use would involve a condition clause (if, had, unless, were, etc), such as:

Had it not been for the civil liberties movements of the twentieth century, legalisation of gay marriage in the US would have been quite unthinkable.

In your example sentences, the modal verb "would" is used to express a habit at a different time. Here is some more information along with examples:

"We thought they would have got home by five o'clock, but there was no reply when we phoned."

Expression of habitual aspect in past time, as in "Back then, I would eat early and would walk to school"

Essentially, you are expressing what was the norm/habit at a point in the past. "Would have" expresses a continued state of something. There is no condition here.

Acceptance of gay marriage would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

This was status quo at that point. We are not conditioning this statement on any other fact.

Generally-speaking, the choice between "would have been", "used to be" and "was" depends on context, and is style-driven. With a word like "unthinkable" in particular, some may not see a distinction between the three. However, to get a sense of tonal difference, contrast with the following sentence:

Even in the previous century, segregating priests of colour was unthinkable.

Here, the emphasis is on a single case that didn't fit the norm, so we use "was" instead of "would have been" or "used to be".

  • I think that every "would have been" [adjective] implies conditions. In both your examples, there is an underlying implication: had that been an issue and had that been tried, If fact, that would be the point of using that tense. Otherwise, one would just use was. For me, would have been, used to be and was are not stylistic at all. The convey different outlooks and meaningts...
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 12:29

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