— Did you have anything to do with the things that were put on the wall there?

— No, that would've been Sam.

I've always seen would've been in conditional sentences, as in "If you were smarter, you would've bought it". But the usage in my example isn't part of a conditional sentence, is it?

Can't find an explanation regarding that usage. But I reckon it's something along the lines of "must/might have been". Is that usage informal?

  • 1
    "Would" can certainly occur in conditionals, but it can also occur in non-conditionals expressing epistemic modality, i.e. a meaning relating to what is possible given our beliefs. In your example, we believe that it was Sam who put things on the wall.
    – BillJ
    Jan 21, 2022 at 8:51
  • @BillJ could you elaborate on that, please? I would like to know where to read about that, you're saying it's non-conditional.
    – Let
    Jan 21, 2022 at 16:02
  • Yes: I'm saying that your particular example is not a conditional construction. I suggest you Google 'epistemic modality', where you should find plenty of references to it.
    – BillJ
    Jan 21, 2022 at 18:50

1 Answer 1


It is a conditional, in an idiomatic use.

The implication is "I didn't who did this, but I can work it out, and if my reasoning is correct, it would have been Sam"

The perfect modal is here indicating tense: the things were put on the wall in the past.

A similar idea could also be expressed with "It must have been Sam". "It would have been Sam" expresses rather more confidence in the deduction. "It must have been Sam"="I can't think of anybody else." /"It would have been Sam"="I can prove it"

It's conversational, but not very informal.

  • Can I say that "that would've been Sam" is equal to "I'm pretty sure / believe it was Sam". Another example, I'm looking at a photo and see a two story-building, can I say: "My apartment would've been right above yours" meaning "I believe my apartment was above yours"?
    – Let
    Jan 21, 2022 at 11:48
  • 1
    You are a little more certain than "I believe it was Sam", but it expresses the same sort of idea. For the apartment, Yes, if you no longer live there. It suggests you have worked out, that the apartment was above, you are not just giving an opinion.
    – James K
    Jan 21, 2022 at 12:10

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