A: It was half past five. Dad would have finished work.

Does that sentence mean there was an expectation that Dad was going to have finished work by half past five?

I found this sentence under the use of future in the past on some websites.

5 Answers 5


You're right about the expectation.

All modals in English have two sets of meanings: the more familiar set is the deontic meaning, which is about the objective world, and about obligations and necessities. Deontic meanings of would are generally about futurity, or intention (including when it serves as the past of will).

Epistemic meanings are about our knowledge or assumptions. Epistemic meanings of would and will are about our expectations. So

Dad will have finished work.

in most contexts means something like "I expect or conclude that Dad has finished work"; and

Dad would have finished work.

is the backshifted version of that.

These uses of will and would are absolutely not "future" (or "future in the past"). But I'm afraid that people have been referring to will a "future tense" for a long time now.

  • Ack, I was composing my answer (I take too long) when I saw a new answer had been posted I went ahead and posted anyway. But I full agree with your interpretation.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 5, 2022 at 12:28
  • As a side note, this construction is often used when talking about the dead. "If dad were still alive, he would be coming home for dinner right now". That's not to say you can't use it in more normal situations, but I frequently associate this tense with death. Aug 5, 2022 at 15:32
  • 1
    @RobinClower: That is a completely different would, a conditional would. The OP's would is a "future from the past's perspective" would.
    – TonyK
    Aug 5, 2022 at 18:57
  • @TonyK: The OP's would is epistemic, and has nothing whatever to do with futurity. I i first though that Robin's example was deontic; but on consideration I think it is epistemic, though it is a different case from the OP's
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 5, 2022 at 19:21
  • @ColinFine: perhaps "future" was wrong; but it's future tense. As in "That'll be the postman" when the door bell rings. And in the past: "The doorbell was ringing. That would be the postman." (I'm sorry, but I don't know what deontic and epistmic mean here.)
    – TonyK
    Aug 5, 2022 at 19:59

Yes, sentence A means that the speaker expects dad to have finished work by 5:30. Since it is 5:30 at the time, I would not call this future in the past, but the expectation is clear.


Unlike Jeff Morrow, I don't see the OP's sentence as being a type of elliptical conditional. Despite the appearance of would, it is not a conditional sentence because there is no "if-clause" (protasi) present in the sentence and none is implied.

There is no uncertainty or probability when the speaker mentions the time. It was half past five, so that meant their father was not at work.

Compare that sentence with this one

Dad would have finished work (but he hadn't) if it had been 5.30 (but it wasn't).
If it had been 5.30 (but it wasn't), Dad would not have been working (but he was still working).

It was the speaker's assumption (a knowledge based on verified experience) that their father could not have been working at 5.30 PM because he always finished working before that hour.


You have the idea. I am not sure I would explain it as a past future. I might prefer to explain it as a past conditional with ellipsis.

It was half past five. [If things were progressing normally,] Dad would have left work.

It was half past five. [Unless something quite unusual had happened,] Dad should have left work.

It is absolutely true that “would” and “should” are past forms of “will” and “shall” (just as “could” and “might” are past forms of “can” and “may”), but modal verbs such as those have special rules. The main use of those modals in modern English is expressing conditionals that are often implied rather than explicit.

  • 1
    I see the OP's sentence as the past form of "It is half past five. Dad will have left work." Do you see my sentence as an implied conditional as well?
    – gotube
    Aug 5, 2022 at 1:24
  • @gotube Yes, that is exactly how I see it. The meaning is “given that it is half past five right now, Dad probably either is currently leaving or else has recently left work.” It does not mean that “given that it is now half past five, Dad will leave work sometime within the next year unless he dies in the meantime.” Most statements about the future are in fact conditional statements because the future is unknowable. I think my approach is easier for students to understand. Talking about the “past future” is not an intuitively comprehensible concept. Aug 5, 2022 at 1:45
  • Fair enough. I'd never thought of it that way, but it makes intuitive sense, and explains why "will" is used. Now that I think about it, the sentence really does mean, "He has left work, probably", with no past-of-future aspect at all. +1
    – gotube
    Aug 5, 2022 at 1:53
  • @JeffMorrow what is your opinion on sentence B? Do you still think it’s a third conditional? Here is the sentence. B: I phoned at six o'clock. I knew he would have got home by then. This one can’t be past conditional in my opinion.
    – Tenji
    Aug 5, 2022 at 1:54
  • @gotube I suspect that people like you and me who answer questions about English are perhaps too knowledgeable about the history of the language to take into account that learners need something that is psychologically relevant to understanding current usage. I also post at a math site (though not a mathematician) and am frequently surprised how often mathematicians do not see where the psychological barriers are for students. Thank you for litening to my point of view. Aug 5, 2022 at 2:01

It means the dad died at work or otherwise did not go to work. Would have means the condition never happened. (coulda, woulda, shoulda). So he either did not go to work or was not present at work at 5, or he died at work and was unable to meet the condition of finishing work.

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