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  1. Before the advent of modern anesthesia, a ship's surgeon would have ordered the injured man to be tied down to the table, and he would have proceeded with the amputation. That would have been it.

  2. Before the advent of modern anesthesia, a ship's surgeon would order the injured man to be tied down to the table, and he would proceed with the amputation. That would be it.

Does the tense of the first version (with "have ordered...have proceeded...have been it") corroborate a relationship of past surgical practice to present practice?

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  1. Before the advent of modern anesthesia, a ship's surgeon would have ordered the injured man to be tied down to the table, and he would have proceeded with the amputation. That would have been it.

  2. Before the advent of modern anesthesia, a ship's surgeon would order the injured man to be tied down to the table, and he would proceed with the amputation. That would be it.

At first blush, it seems to me that version #2 is what you are looking for. Though, version #1 could probably also be used without any problems.

In version #1, it seems to have a layer of modal remoteness to it, due to the extra past-tense (the perfect construction). Consider:

  • "If they had penicillin in the 1800s, a ship's surgeon would have ordered the injured man to sick bay and he would have given him a shot of the good stuff. That would have been it. But they didn't have penicillin in the 1800s, and so the ship's surgeon would order the man thrown overboard and the sharks would finish him off. That would be it. It was simple and it kept the ship clean."

I think that might show a possible difference in possible usage of the two different types of construction.

The two original examples could also be compared to examples that used "Back then" instead of "Before the advent of modern anesthesia":

  • 1.b. Back then, a ship's surgeon would have ordered the injured man to be tied down to the table, and he would have proceeded with the amputation. That would have been it.

  • 2.b. Back then, a ship's surgeon would order the injured man to be tied down to the table, and he would proceed with the amputation. That would be it.

Those examples (#1.b and #2.b) might help to show a possible contrast or difference in the two constructions.

Now back to the OP's original two versions (#1 and #2): in a typical context, both of them could probably be used by the speaker to mean the same thing, and there probably wouldn't be any problem in understanding what was meant.

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  • +1 Do you think that perhaps the perfect aspect versions invite some kind of contrast with the present whilst the simple preterite versions are just descriptions? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Apr 26 '15 at 11:07
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    @Araucaria I'm not quite sure what to put down for the perfect versions: is it sorta like a doubly-remote, or is it sorta like a backshift? If not much, or nothing, is really intended by the speaker by using it, other than perhaps "smoothness' in the speech, then, perhaps it be considered a backshift. If the speaker intended to show contrast (when compared to the non-perfect version), then, perhaps it be considered a doubly-remote. That is, if I was to be guessing. :) – F.E. Apr 26 '15 at 17:51
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Use of "would have" does not corroborate any kind of relationship between past practices and present. Rather, "would have" is simply the past tense construction of the future perfect "will have". The use of "have" further alters the verb's tense to a perfect tense. "Will have" is future perfect. "Would have" is past perfect.

When, where, why, and how to use perfect tenses exceeds the scope of this question and might be too advanced for this exchange. I'd love to write a better answer for you, but such an answer would have to be very long and complicated. Instead, please allow me to refer you to this question for a relevant conversation on proper use of "will have" for the future perfect vs. a plain, future tense verb.

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