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According to M. Swan I assume we can use would have + pp to refer to unrealised present, past or the future events in the sentences like the following:

It would have been nice to go to Australia this winter, but there is no way we can do it.

Swan provides the sentence as an example to the rule. How can we determine what kind of unrealised event (past, present or future) we're talking about. I suspect it depends on the subordinate clause. In the case it is but there is no way we can do it. We're talking about unrealised future situation, right?

But if we replace the subordinate clause with but there had not been way we could do it we'll be talking about unrealised past event... Or present? Or, as always, it depends on context? The entire sentence is:

It would have been nice to go to Australia this winter, but there had not been way we could do it

Could you explain is my reasoning right?

  • A sidenote: "but" is a coordinating conjunction in an independent clause. It is not subordinate to the first clause. (source) – CowperKettle Oct 19 '14 at 7:27
  • I've found a related discussion at this site. – CowperKettle Oct 19 '14 at 7:57
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    Because past is impossible to return, impossible situations in the present and future are treated with the same constructions for past conditionals. Thanks for this very good question and answer. I found a mark I made it when I was reading this topic in Swan's Practical English Usage. It seems it puzzled me at that time, but I am happy that I figured it out on my own trying to answer this post before checking the great answer here. – learner Oct 19 '14 at 10:47
  • "there is no way" = tells that the situation is impossible, or so it seems (for the purpose of applying the grammar point in here) – learner Oct 19 '14 at 10:52
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It would have been nice to go to Australlia this winter, but there is no way we can do it. (M. Swan, "Practical English Usage", Topic 259.3)

You're asking: "How can we determine what kind of unrealised event (past, present or future) we're talking about?"

The use of "would have" + past participle tells us that there was some possibility in the past but it has not been realised.

Let's say it's October 2014 at this moment. In March 2014, you were earing $4000 a month and were full of hopes to travel to Australia in November 2014. But in May 2014 you fell ill and had to leave your work, returning only in September 2014.

So, at the present moment of 19 October 2014 things have already turned out so that a trip to Australia is out of the question. By using would have been, you signal to the person you're talking to that some unspecified past circumstances make this trip impossible. It could be not some single event like sudden illness but the whole development of your life prior to this moment that makes this future trip impossible.

How do we know the impossible trip is positioned in the future? Because the independent clause "but there's no way we can do it" is in the present tense: we cannot do it now. It is not necessary to harmonize an independent clause with another independent clause.

To place the timeframe of the event in the past, we may tweak the independent "but-clause" to the use of the Past Simple:

It would have been nice to go to Australlia this winter, but there was no way for us to do it.

Now, we say that there'll be no possibility to make the desired trip even if we get a payrise and a paid leave right away, because, for example, the season has passed (it's 1 March 2015).

P.S.

I'v found a great passage by a native speaker on sentences of this type:

I think the best way to think of what is going on is that this kind of sentence describes a 'lost opportunity'. And in describing this kind of 'lost opportunity' English only allows past conditionals, even if that fact has consequences for today or for the future. You can think of it as "the opportunity is over and has moved into the past."

  • There is another example: If my mother had been alive, she would have been 80 next year. We obviously talking about situation that's impossible in the future. Why do we use past perfect there instead of present (If my mother is alive...) – Dmitrii Bundin Oct 19 '14 at 8:47
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    No, we're talking about a situation that was made impossible at some point in the past. The possibility of the situation "my mother turns 80 next year" was destroyed at some point in the past. On the contrary, by saying "if my mother is alive", you're signaling that you're not sure whether she is alive, but that you leave this possibility open. If you then add "she would have been", the two clauses would contradict each over. "Would have been" signals counterfactuality so strongly that you can leave out the first clause alltogether without much damage to the meaning of the whole sentence. – CowperKettle Oct 19 '14 at 9:01
  • Imagine a timeline with two points. By saying "she would have been.." you're crossing out the first point with red ink. This point is in the past relative to now and is marked "the possibility for my mother to ever turn 80". The second point, to the right, positioned in the future, is marked "next year: my mother celebrates her 80th birthday". Is it being crossed out by red ink simultaneously with the first, because would have been is followed by the mention of "next year" (future). The clause "If my mother had been alive" merely explains why these two points have been slashed out. – CowperKettle Oct 19 '14 at 9:09
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    Because past is impossible to return, impossible situations in the present and future are treated with the same constructions for past conditionals. Thanks for this very good question and answer. I found a mark I made it when I was reading this topic in Swan's Practical English Usage. It seems it puzzled me at that time, but I am happy that I figured it out on my own trying to answer this post before checking the great answer here. – learner Oct 19 '14 at 10:46
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    Thank you for appreciating my answer, @learner! It was interesting to try to unravel this topic. I'll try to read up more on this in Quirk et al and in Huddleston&Pullum later. – CowperKettle Oct 19 '14 at 11:16

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