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As far as I know, "would have been" is used in examples of conditionals, but I am having difficulty in deciding the tense of the statements.

  1. That would have been a terrible mistake.

Here have been represents present perfect tense(I think) and according to the meaning of statement it feels like the person is speaking in past tense.

  1. He would have been a fantastic teacher but he could never establish discipline in the class.

Please help me know what would be the main verb, tense of the sentences and the meaning of the statements. Is the person speaking in past tense or present tense? I feel very confused. (It might seem trivial though)

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    In It would have been a terrible mistake [if I had done that], the "main verb" is TO BE (been). You can see that because if you had done it, you'd say It was a terrible mistake. The auxiliaries would and have are just there to "fine-tune" the main verb for tense/mood. – FumbleFingers Jul 11 '15 at 18:48
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Is seems that verb forms as "would have been, would have had, would have done" have no name and are automatically treated as if clauses. Here verb forms are confused with sentence types that contain if-clauses.

"will be, will do" (will + infinitive) is future tense, "will have been, will have done" (will + infinitive perfect) is future perfect. Some call the two tenses simply future 1 and future 2 or F1 and F2.

"would be, would do" (would +infinitive) should also have a name and "would have been, would have done" (would + infinitive perfect) as well. I call the two verb forms simply C1 and C2 (conditional 1 and conditional2).

The poster has the view that "would have been" is would + present perfect. That view is totally wrong. Such misconceptions happen because in English grammars the conjugation is presented with six tenses:

Simple tenses: I do, I did, I will do

Perfect tenses: I have done, I had done, I will have done.

I think it would be better to include C1 and C2:

I do, I did, I will do, I would do

I have done, I had done, I will have done, I would have done.

C1 and C2 are not seen as tenses, but only as moods just like the subjunctive. But as "would" is grammatically the past tense of "will", C1 and C2 have of course a tense character, too.

C1 and C2 can be used alone, without an if-clause.

  • Yes, that would be fine. (Referring to now or later.)

  • Yes, that would have been nice. (Referring to something in the past.)

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"Would have been", in both sentences, constitutes the perfect continuous ("have been") conditional ("would") tense, also known and more commonly referred to as third conditional, past perfect conditional and type 3 conditional. It expresses an unfulfilled result of the if-clause (In "that would have been a terrible mistake", the mistake never happened.).

In "He would have been a fantastic teacher, but he could never establish discipline in class", there is a slight deviation. You'd have to use the auxiliary could instead of would in order to connect the two sentences with but, given that it does not establish a conditional (instead connecting contrary ideas - the use of would presupposes a conditional).

It is, however, important to note that in the second sentence, the conditional is at the end of the phrase. The teacher would have been fantastic, if he were able to establish discipline in class.

The sentence could, therefore, be written as:

"He would have been a fantastic teacher, if only he could establish discipline in class"

"If he were able to establish discipline in class, he would have been a fantastic teacher"

"He would have been a fantastic teacher, had he been able to establish discipline in class"

"He could have been a fantastic teacher, but he could never establish discipline in class"

The person is, in both phrases, referring to an outcome that was possible at one point in the past, but did not happen. It is constructed with "would have" + past participle.

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