He would be about twenty when he crossed the Pacific on a yacht alone.
(From a Korean English grammar textbook)

If I re-write the sentence above in this way

He would have been about twenty when he crossed the Pacific on a yacht alone.

it seems somewhat is awkward.

Is it strange? If yes, what’s the reason?

  • 2
    The first version is "temporally neutral", in that you can say "He was born in 1993, so he would be about twenty today", or "Even if he signed up for this course tomorrow, he would be about twenty when he graduated in 2016". The second version is perfectly valid, but can only apply to some time in the past when he was twenty. Mar 10, 2013 at 23:52
  • 4
    @FumbleFingers Dammit, you did my whole answer in two sentences. :) Mar 11, 2013 at 1:13
  • @StoneyB: As penance for your verbosity, explain to me why I could have used signs up and graduates in my second example, with apparently no identifiable change in meaning. And convince me I must be wrong in feeling I could change either one without also changing the other! :) Mar 11, 2013 at 2:20
  • @FumbleFingers Because present forms can be employed to express futurity. "I'm taking English 340 next spring so I can take 350 next fall when Prof. Sartorius is teaching it." Every one of those verbs is a present construction; every one has future reference. That's why the linguists say English has two tenses: past and non-past. Mar 11, 2013 at 2:53
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers The first one runs into sequence-of-tenses problems; graduated calls for a past form (you can call it 'subjunctive' if John Lawler isn't looking) in the protasis: Even if he signed or were to sign. The second is semantically awkward: it implies that you're certain he will graduate in 2016, and presumably he would be about 20 then regardless of his class schedule. But at least 20 when he graduates (no year) would be fine, since at leaves open the possibility that signing up for this class would allow him to graduate at age 20 rather than 21 or 22. Mar 11, 2013 at 3:20

1 Answer 1


Your first sentence is ambiguous; it may represent either of two different uses of would.

If Google is translating your grammar book approximately correctly (which is not something I put a great deal of confidence in!), it seems to offer this sentence as an example of both a) would, used as the past tense of will, and b) would, used to ‘speculate about the past’. These two are not entirely compatible.

Let's begin with a) would, used as the past tense of will. In this case, your sentence represents sentence A1 ‘backshifted’ into the past as A2. I’ve added clauses on the front and back to clarify the time references:

A1. [She says    today    that] he  will  be about twenty when he crosses ... [next year].
A2. [She said ten years ago that] he would be about twenty when he crossed ... [the next year].

The ‘speculative’ use of b) would, is different: it represents its clause as uncertain, based on inferences or on counterfactual conditions.

B1. [If he had not died,] he would be about twenty ....
B2. [If her math is right,] he would be about twenty ...

But note that there is a significant difference between B1 and B2. B1 requires he would be, because it is counterfactual. B2, however, may just as correctly be expressed as he is—or even he will be.

B3. [If her math is right,] he will be about twenty ...

(Will is tolerated because where inference is involved, will no longer necessarily bears a ‘future’ implication. Its sense is still sequential; but the sequence is logical rather than temporal, as when we say “A follows logically from B”.)

Accordingly, backshifting this sort of speculative clause can be effected with the same form as in A2:

B4. [If her math was right,] he would be about twenty ...

However, this represents a past speculation about what were then present (or future) contingencies. If you want to represent a present speculation about past contingencies, you need a different construction:

C1. [If her math is right,] he was about twenty ...
C2. [If her math is right,] he would have been about twenty ... [preserving would]

So whether the construction is awkward depends on what you mean.

  • I was going to ask a similar question. However, Listenever did her homework very well. I like the way you explain things. It's just like providing a rigorous proof for a math problem, which much resembles the thinking habits of Asian students. I would suggest you compiling these questions into a book and publishing it. I think students, esp Asian students, would benefit a lot from it. Even though I got high marks for my English tests at university, I don't think it significantly helped deepen my understanding of language. @StoneyB
    – Kinzle B
    Oct 12, 2015 at 15:14
  • 1
    @KinzleB You're very gracious. I've tried consolidating these pieces, but I don't have a systematic framework -- the apparent mathematical rigor is actually wholly improvised! Oct 12, 2015 at 15:31
  • Re: "A2. [She said ten years ago that] he would be about twenty when he crossed ... [the next year].": Shouldn't the correct form be "[She said ten years ago that] he would be about twenty when he would cross ... [the next year]."? In your sentence backshifting occurs for "said", "would" but not for "crossed" -- is there a particular reason for it? Mar 2, 2020 at 0:43

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