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What's the difference between the following:

  1. By the age of 45, most men had died.

  2. By the age of 45, most men had been dead.

I was told the second is wrong but I don't know why.

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    One reason that it sounds wrong is that had been (adjective) usually means that they were and continued to be adjective. But if the men were dead, they wouldn't then progress to the age of 45! – stangdon Jul 28 '16 at 14:31
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Actually, both sentences can be correct, but it depends on what you are trying to say so more context is needed.

By the age of 45, most men were dead.

would be understood to mean that most men did not live past the age of 45 for whatever reason, for example war. A more usual way to phrase this might be

By the age of 45, most men had died.

To describe the results of a war one would usually say

By the age of 45, most men had been killed.

In your other phrase

By the age of 45, most men had been dead.

although awkward in phrasing could mean that by the age of 45, most men had be "broken in spirit", they had figuratively become the "walking dead" or "zombies" like something out of an Orwellian dystopia.

In an interesting news article:
A boring job really make brain dead Lack stimulation affects memory concentration later life

  • Thanks Peter sir for your explanation. In "By the time I left, I was two hours behind schedule." By the time means either before or all the time including up to present. Suppose I left at 10, so does the above sentence mean I was two hours behind the schedule before the time I left(10), say, 9(before the time I left)? This is If I use by in the sense of before. Or does it mean I was two hours behind schedule at 10, that is when I left. If yes, then Why not use when I left or at the time I left and why use by the time? Please help. So tough to get around. – Policewala Jul 30 '16 at 14:44
  • If you had left at 10, and then said "By the time I left, I was two hours late", it means you should have left at 8 to be on schedule. If you had left at 9, you would say "By the time I left, I was one hour late". In this case "By the time I left" has the same meaning as "when I left" and can be used interchangeably, it is only stylistic. – Peter Jul 30 '16 at 15:05
  • Thanks sir for your help. In 'By midnight, I will be home for 3 hours'. Is it correct? I mean does it mean I will be home for three hours for the time extending upto midnight. – Policewala Jul 30 '16 at 15:51
  • You would say "By midnight, I will be home for 3 hours" before midnight and means you got home at 9 extending up to midnight – Peter Jul 30 '16 at 16:04
  • But then what would this mean 'By midnight, I will have been home for 3 hours. Would this also be the same as above? – Policewala Jul 30 '16 at 19:05
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Had been dead wants a time-span modifier:

Had been dead for ten years....

**Had been" + adjective (or participle) establishes a span of time during which the adjective state (or ongoing action) obtains.

He had been asleep for only two minutes when the phone rang.

The terrible tot had been holding her breath when she passed out.

The phrase "by age 45" does not provide the needed time-span.

P.S. Just as the time-phrase in a present-perfect construction cannot exclude the present, because the past is perceived from the present point-of-view when using the present-perfect

*I have not seen her yesterday (correct: "did not see her yesterday")

the time-phrase in a past-perfect construction cannot exclude the more recent past, because the more distant past is perceived from the point-of-view of the more recent past in a past-perfect construction.

A phrase like "by 10PM" excludes the recent past as it cuts off the flow of time, so to speak; it locates a specific time in the past earlier than the more recent past, and ends there.

not OK He had been asleep by 10PM when the phone rang.

OK He had been asleep since 10PM when the phone rang.

  • TRomano sir, I am a fan of your teaching skills. But I am bothered by a question. I have been confused about it since Tuesday and I have spent practically all time since then on this, but only to get more confused. For example If I said, 'He will be happy by midnight', so does it mean he will be happy from now and upto including midnight? or At just one point between now and midnight? or Just at midnight? Since we are using 'by' we can't say just 'At' midnight or else we would have used just 'at' and not by. – Policewala Jul 30 '16 at 13:38
  • He will be happy by midnight = He is not happy now but by midnight at the latest he will be happy. Your package will arrive by Thursday. You can expect to receive your package no later than Thursday, that is, Thursday at the latest. You might get it earlier, on Wednesday, say. If it is the USPS, you might get it on Friday. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 30 '16 at 15:02
  • At midnight = precisely when the clock strikes midnight. The giant illuminated ball celebrating the New Year drops at midnight. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 30 '16 at 15:04
  • TRomano sir, By definition 'by' means either before or at. So can it mean I could be happy before midnight and not be happy at midnight, If I use by in the sense of ONLY before? Or does by always have to be used to means before+at? – Policewala Jul 30 '16 at 15:14

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