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The following sentence is about a problem that took place last week when an aircraft's door panel blew out while it was in the air.

The aircraft was delivered to Alaska Airlines on 31 October 2023, and would only have completed around 100 flights a month.

BBC - Questions about airplane door problem

Why say "...would only have completed..." instead of "....completed...."? We are not making a guess about 2000 years ago, we are simply talking about something that happened last week, so why avoid the simple past?

This usage of "...would have done..." for a fact that took place last week is something that I can't easily understand as a non-native speaker. I think it is because this usage -though being so common- is not covered at schools as an alternative form of Simple past tense.

But I see it being used so commonly that it now gives me the feeling that "would have done" is more than a Type 3 conditional and it functions as another version of Simple past tense. The only difference seems to be when you want to emphasize that you may not be 100% sure about a detail, a number, etc. of the past event.

But, saying this would still not be clear enough for non-native speakers, because in almost every case there might be some details where one might not be 100% sure. If the sole reason of not being 100% sure about a detail would be the reason to switch to "would have done", then how can we decide whether we should avoid "simple past" even telling about our daily lives, too, as there is always something where one may not be a 100% sure about a detail?

For example:

What did you do last weekend?

So we say

I got up at around 7. And at around 9, I left for a walk, and later I did that ..... so on.

(Normally, even if we may not be sure about the exact hours of what we did, we usually answer this question in simple past structure. And for the emphasis of uncertainty about numbers or any other details, we add something like "around" in the past tense. So, we do not feel any need for another structure like "would have done".)

However, considering such common usage of "would have done" by native-speakers, I ask myself why we don't use "would have done" at all when we,too, can't be 100% sure about numbers. And I also wonder how it would sound like if I answered to the question in a "would have done" structure instead of "simple past"?

  • Last weekend, I would have got up around 7 in the morning,*

  • Then I would have left for a walk at around 9,*

  • Later on, I would have gone for lunch around 13.00.*

  • Probably at 23.30, I would have gone to sleep.*

Would it not sound strange?

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    By my reading, “would have” means “was expected to”, using “would” as past tense of “will”; as in, this is the amount of usage that was planned for the aircraft. But I am not sure if this is correct. Jan 9 at 15:22
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    would have completed is speculative. The journalist is not 100% sure but is making an educated guess based on available information. Compare: the author actually knew the delivery date. That was not speculation.
    – Lambie
    Jan 9 at 15:57
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    No, no, no. What you say is FINE so is: I would have got up at 9:00, when or if you are not sure. Compare that to the BBC article: they used a simple way to express a speculative idea in writing. They could not have done what you did in speech. "probably completed 100 flights". Get it? :) This "would have past participle" usage is more formal and for writing.
    – Lambie
    Jan 9 at 16:24
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    Use of "would have" implies a lack of absolute certainty. It's pretty common to use it this way in English. There's nothing strange about it at all.
    – Billy Kerr
    Jan 10 at 0:16
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    Also "fine as is" is a common/informal way to say "It's fine as it is".. It's not a mistake. Also Lambie is not wrong with his use of "gotten". It's considered non-standard in standard Br.Eng now, but some of us do still use it here. It's use in the UK is regional. The Americans didn't just make it up. They got it from us Brits!!!
    – Billy Kerr
    Jan 10 at 0:28

6 Answers 6

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It's not about lack of precision. It's about lack of direct evidence.

It's unclear where the article's author gets the "a few flights a month" figure, but we can surmise they didn't get it from anyone who actually counted all the flights before the failure; with such a new plane, most of the available data probably came from before it went into service. "Would have done" in this case means "That was the plan, and nothing changed as far as we know."

You don't have to speculate about what you would have done last week if you remember it yourself or have records of it. You use it to signal that you're deducing the information based on your usual routine.

The 24th? Let's see, that was a Wednesday, so I would have had lunch at the diner. No wait, I remember now—I had leftover curry from my anniversary the night before. I ate it in my office and Tom came in around 12:15.

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    @yunus As for the glass on the street, we say "there must have been an accident", which is both more certain and less certain depending on how you look at it. We have direct evidence that something happened, but we're just guessing what it was. With "would have been", we're basically assuming nothing atypical happened because we have no evidence against it, and describing what the typical scenario would be. Jan 9 at 10:06
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    News reporting tends to be extremely careful. If they use the plain past for anything, it means that their evidence has met their own exacting standards. "Would have done" signals the reader that there is speculation occurring. Being able to distinguish between speculation and fact is an important element of media literacy.
    – YonKuma
    Jan 9 at 13:27
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    @yunus As stated, because the newspaper has met that standard of evidence. Someone who works at the newspaper has seen either a document attesting that the aircraft was delivered on that day or a trustworthy newspaper article reporting on the delivery of the airplane, or has talked directly to someone with knowledge of the delivery.
    – YonKuma
    Jan 9 at 13:41
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    @yunus I think the "extremely careful about something he can't know for sure" is tripping you up. In the philosophical sense, there are not very many things that we can know with 100% certainty. However, the author clearly has some kind of hard data indicating when the plane was delivered. I'm sure the author wasn't present when it was delivered, but perhaps the delivery is a public record or something. However, the "100 flights per month" figure is likely an average or an approximation. That's all there is to it.
    – Tashus
    Jan 9 at 15:30
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    It's not about formality, it's about the requirement to express uncertainty. You rarely need to express uncertainty about events that you lived; though the answer gives an excellent example of when you may need to. Newspapers routinely need to distinguish between "certainties" (as governed by their own evidentiary requirements) and likely speculation.
    – YonKuma
    Jan 9 at 15:58
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All modals have an epistemic reading (about the speaker's knowledge) as well as a deontic reading (about necessity, possibility, probability, in the real world).

In English, when modals are used with "have", but not following a conditional clause ("if" etc) they are very often epistemic.

Here, as others have said would have indicates that the speaker does not know the number, but has deduced or concluded it from other information.

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    Exactly. People don't understand that It would have seen 100 flights is merely the past tense of It will have seen 100 flights, both completely epistemic. They mean that the speaker is certain about something that happened in the past, just one version backshifted from the other.
    – tchrist
    Jan 10 at 2:08
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    @tchrist, uncertain?
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 10 at 17:42
  • It is not "would have". It's: would have + past participle. But I don't see how this even really addresses the problem in a learner's terms. This is not the past tense of will here.
    – Lambie
    Jan 10 at 18:18
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The problem that grounded the plane happened on January 5. It didn't complete around 100 flights a month, since its service was cut short by the accident. It would have completed around that number of flights, if it had continued flying as usual.

Additionally, since it was in service for such a short time (two full months of November and December) the difference is significant, meaning the plane flew roughly 220 flights instead of 300, which it would have completed without the issues.

If the plane had been in service for several years, they could have said "completed around 100 flights a month", since the one, short month would not have changed the average meaningfully.

Finally, it is possible that the plane did not reach full service yet, but the plan was that it eventually would fly around that number of flights a month. Flightradar shows that it had completed only 145 flights after being delivered.

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    So, contrary to all others, you think that this is a Conditional Type 3 sentence?
    – Yunus
    Jan 10 at 13:16
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    It lacks the 'if' that would make it conditional. I agree with the other answers grammatically, but disagree that the structure points to lack of evidence. Rather it would not be factually correct to say 'completed 100 flights a month' as it had not happened yet! Jan 10 at 13:23
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    It is similar to conditional type 3, since it seems what is implied is "The aircraft was delivered to Alaska Airlines on 31 October 2023, [and if the plane had continued flying,] it would only have completed around 100 flights a month". Jan 10 at 13:27
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    I'm sure the journalist simply intended to "hedge" his assertion about how many flights the plane made before the failure. He wasn't talking about how many flights it would have made / would be making in the future once it gets put back into service (which will happen; they wouldn't write off a whole plane just because of one fault, not matter how bad that fault). Jan 10 at 13:53
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    @user3481644 The relevance is how we know they meant it as an estimate, not as a reference to potential missed flights in the future. How could the number of flights possibly be relevant to a story about an airplane that had a part fail? Well, if the airplane was old and had been used a lot then we might think the failure was due to wear-and-tear or maintenance. But the author clarifies for us that the plane was quite new and hadn't flown many times at all. The author provides an estimate rather than looking up flight records and specifically counting because that's all we need. Jan 10 at 19:16
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  1. The would have implies that it's an estimate or a guess of what the actual number is.

  2. It can also be used to imply that the number can only be estimated because it's no longer possible to measure it. For example, if the plane had crashed and couldn't be flown anymore, the same sentence would imply that the estimate is because it can no longer be measured (because the plane is destroyed).

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The article contains the following statement.

The aircraft was delivered to Alaska Airlines on 31 October 2023, and would only have completed around 100 flights a month. Normal wear and tear or maintenance failures are unlikely to have been factors affecting such a young aircraft.

The meaning of this statement is as follows.

The aircraft was only recently delivered and the plan was to complete only around 100 flights a month. How did it happen that a brand-new aircraft with not that big number of flights a month experienced such a dramatic technical failure? You know, normal wear and tear or maintenance failures are unlikely to have been factors affecting such a young aircraft.

No, "would have done" does not function as another version of Simple past tense with the only difference when you want to emphasize that you may not be 100% sure about a detail of the past event.

"Would have done" is not about uncertainty in details at all. "Would have done" is about what the plan was or how things usually happen.

The author is certain that the plan was to complete around 100 flights a month and he has no doubt about the number: it is around 100 flights a month.

The author said "...would only have completed..." instead of "....completed...." because 100 flights a month have not yet been completed. There was a plan to complete only 100 flights a month and that plan was abrupted due to the failure, so he said "...would only have completed around 100 flights a month."

You also wondered how it would sound like if you answered to the question "What did you do last weekend?" in the "would have done" structure instead of "simple past"?

Last weekend, I would have got up around 7 in the morning. Then I would have left for a walk at around 9. Later on, I would have gone for lunch around 13.00. Probably at 23.30, I would have gone to sleep.

OK, It could sound like this:

Last weekend, I had a plan to get up around 7 in the morning. (But I got up only at 12:00, because the day before I worked hard and late.) Then I had a plan to leave for a walk at around 9. (But I didn’t go because I slept until 12:00) Later on, I had a plan to go for lunch around 13.00. (But I didn’t have lunch, because at 13:00 I had just had breakfast) Finally, I had a plan to go to sleep around 23.30. (But in fact, I went to bed at 21:00 because at that time I was already really sleepy.)

And here you are certain about the numbers.

Please note that the "would have done" structure here does not mean you are not being 100% sure about a detail. It wouldn't sound like this:

Last weekend, I got up around 7 in the morning or maybe around 6 in the morning or maybe around 8 in the morning, I'm not sure. Then I left for a walk at around 9 or maybe at around 10 or maybe at around 11, I'm not sure. Later on, I gone for a lunch around 13.00 or maybe at around 13:30 or maybe at around 14, I'm not sure. Probably at 23.30 or maybe at 23:00 or maybe at 22:00, I'm not sure, I gone to sleep.

If the question were "What do you usually do on weekends?" and should you answered to the question in the "would have done" structure:

On weekends, I would have got up around 7 in the morning. Then I would have left for a walk at around 9. Later on, I would have gone for lunch around 13.00. Probably at 23.30, I would have gone to sleep.

It would sound like this:

On weekends, I usually get up around 7 in the morning. Then I usually leave for a walk at around 9. Later on, I usually go for lunch around 13.00. Probably at 23.30, I usually go to sleep.

Again, here you are confident in the numbers.

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    @Sergey, Thanks for the detailed answer, I agree mostly, but I still have a question. You say "...100 flights a month have not yet been completed a month..... ", however, it was actually completed for 2 months. 100 flights were completed in November and another 100 flights were completed in December. This is what the plan was. So the plan was implemented. So unlike what you say, the structure "would have completed" doesn't apply to November and December, because what was planned actually was implemented. The structure "would have done" only applies to January.
    – Yunus
    Jan 15 at 7:24
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    @Mari-LouA, Done.
    – Sergey
    Jan 15 at 9:32
  • @yunus, I think the author have written "The aircraft... would only have completed around 100 flights a month" to emphasize that there was a plan to fly only around 100 flights a month, but even that modest plan was interrupted. Because at the time of writing the aircraft was grounded and undergoing investigation because of the accident.
    – Sergey
    Jan 16 at 13:51
-1

Its a slightly odd bit of Grammar - the Past habitual There's a wiki page about this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_markers_of_habitual_aspect

It is mentioned on the British council page for learners of English "Would for past habits is slightly more formal than used to. It is often used in stories."

Native speakers of english probably wouldn't even know they were doing this.

A quick google finds Tony Bennet telling us: "My father would go to the top of the mountains in Calabria, Italy to sing and the whole village could hear him"

As it is recounting something that might have happened regularly, its perhaps not that accurate, even if you said "On friday night we would drink 6 pints".

Note that in many cases you can replace "would" with "used to".

Of course in this case, it looks slightly different because it changes the tense to "have done", but the examples would have a similar meaning with "have gone" and "have drunk".

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  • This is an interesting usage, but I don't think it matches the example - as the lede of the Wikipedia article says, the habitual aspect is about repetition or continuous existence. This appears instead to be a marker of "evidentiality" or "epistemic modality"
    – IMSoP
    Jan 11 at 19:20

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