Question about tenses

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french1234

Senior Member
Hebrew
Hi and good morning,
I have this sentence which I don't understand too well:
"Some decades ago, it WOULDN'T HAVE BEEN unusual to meet people who had never heard of acupuncture. However, media coverage in recent years has ensured that.."
What I don't understand is the choice of 'wouldn't have been' while the sentence is in the past. Isn't it supposed to be 'wouldn't be' or 'wasn't'?
Maybe because it connects to the present in the second sentence?
Still, there is the time expression 'some decades ago' which makes the use of present perfect problematic.
I'm very confused
Thanks in advance
 
  • french1234

    Senior Member
    Hebrew
    Maybe it has something in common with the 'if' clause? For example: If you had lived some decades ago, you would have met people who..

    It's only a guess...
     

    french1234

    Senior Member
    Hebrew
    Hey Aidanriley, thanks for the link :)
    Are you sure this is the case? Because I've read and didn't find something about past and 'would have', only 'would', What even makes it more weird..
    What do you think?
    Thanks
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    For me the key point is the one you make, French, about the link to the present. X years ago it wouldn't have been etc... is a form you use to introduce a present which is different. It leads into but now etc...
     

    french1234

    Senior Member
    Hebrew
    Mm I think I understand :)
    So despite the fact there is a time expression, you can still use the 'perfect' tense because it's like 'from then untill now', just like 'since', and then it merges with the persent, right?
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Mm I think I understand :)
    So despite the fact there is a time expression, you can still use the 'perfect' tense because it's like 'from then untill now', just like 'since', and then it merges with the persent, right?
    I'm not sure this is clear. I'm not sure that what I'm about to say will be clear, either, but I'll have a try.

    It is - present
    It was - imperfect (for states or habits)
    It would be - alternative imperfect (for states or habits)
    It would be - conditional.

    There is, of course, a problem of distinguishing the alternative imperfect from the conditional.

    If you want to have the slightly distant habit-in-the-past of would be, but avoid possible misreadings for the conditional, you can use it would have been - this also carries the implication that we are dealing with something which is no longer the case. This final consideration is what makes it suitable for explaining that once something was the case, but now it no longer is.
     

    french1234

    Senior Member
    Hebrew
    Thank you Thomas. Your explanation is very clear.
    A few minutes ago, I wouldn't have understood it, but now I do:)
     

    Natalisha

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Your discussion here is very interesting, and I understand your point of view, Thomas. But I perceive the sentence in a different way: "would+perfect infinitive" can be used here to discribe the situation that is different from what actually happened. And I consider the auther wanted to say that though it WOULDN'T HAVE BEEN unusual to meet people who had never heard of acupuncture, it WAS unusial. Then we should pay attention to the following sentence starting with the "however". I would be grateful to you, French, if you provided us with the continuation of this sentence.
     
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    french1234

    Senior Member
    Hebrew
    Sure, Natalisha. Here:
    "However, media coverage in recent years has ensured that almost everybody today has at least heard of it, even if they have not experienced it themselves."

    I think it was USUAL to meet those people, but you're right in saying that it was an unreal situation.
    Maybe your explanation is complementary to Thomas' (;
     

    Natalisha

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Yes, Thomas, you are right. But do you agree that without the given context it's not so clear? Look at this sentence please (let it be somebody's thought): "Some decades ago, it WOULDN'T HAVE BEEN unusual to meet people who had never heard of acupuncture. HOWEVER, media coverage in recent years has ensured that such alternative methods of treatment were rather popular at that time".
     

    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    I agree with Thomas Tompion's excellent explanation. I also agree that it is a common way of talking about a real past.

    However, I see the underlying syntax as that of an unreal condition, with an implied unrealized condition that might be something like if we had been there to ask them:
    Some decades ago, it WOULDN'T HAVE BEEN unusual to meet people who had never heard of acupuncture, [if we had been there to ask them].
    I don't think the structure requires "however" to be understood.
     
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    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Yes, Thomas, you are right. But do you agree that without the given context it's not so clear? Look at this sentence please (let it be somebody's thought): "Some decades ago, it WOULDN'T HAVE BEEN unusual to meet people who had never heard of acupuncture. HOWEVER, media coverage in recent years has ensured that such alternative methods of treatment were rather popular at that time".
    I can't see it, Natalisha, even if I change the ensured to proved or shown.

    I'm not saying that it wouldn't have been can't be a conditional, of course. It can be part of a perfectly normal 3rd conditional sentence: it wouldn't have been unusual, had we repeated the action many times.

    I'd understand the opening of the sentence in the OP, immediately, as talking about a real past, and it would take a very strange twist of the sentence later on to turn it into something else. The point may be that this structure is a bit of a grammatical cliché, overused, perhaps, by people who write about the past.
     

    DS56

    Member
    English
    Cagey is correct. I believe it's a subjunctive, not a conditional, but whatever it's called the purpose is to express the fact that we are only IMAGINING doing a survey about acupuncture, we didn't actually go around and ask people decades ago. The "would" expresses the subjunctive, the "have been" expresses the pastness.

    Present subjunctive:
    "It would be unusual to meet anyone under 30 without an email address."

    Past without subjunctive:
    "20 years ago, it was unusual for people to go to an acupuncturist."
    (We're not imagining a nonexistent survey, just reporting a fact about the past)
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I'm interested that this should be getting so complicated.

    I expect that most of us would accept that there is an alternative imperfect in English with the same verb form as the conditional.

    I would walk every day is one way of saying I used to walk every day. We have, in various other threads, discussed the circumstances in which this alternative cannot be used as a substitute for I used to walk, or I walked (in its imperfect sense).

    I've been trying to see why people might think that I would have walked is not capable of a similar purely temporal (i.e. non-conditional) sense. For me it's used usually of things which were true in the past, but do not remain true now, in the present.

    In those days I would have walked every day, but now, of course...Oh dear!

    I really can't see any lurking if-clause here. What would it have to be? I can't really image one.

    In those days I would walk every day, but now, of course...Oh dear!

    This second sentence carries less of a sense of regret, to my ear, and actually sounds less idiomatic.

    I'm going to take a lot of persuading that this tense has anything at all to do with subjunctives.
     

    DS56

    Member
    English
    In those days I would have walked every day, but now, of course...Oh dear!

    I really can't see any lurking if-clause here. What would it have to be? I can't really image one.
    I don't think you could say this if you actually did walk every day. It is still counterfactual. It sounds correct to me only in a context like "Ah, Paris in the '20s! I would have walked the city every day, but now it's so dirty."

    In those days I would walk every day, but now, of course...Oh dear!
    This second sentence carries less of a sense of regret, to my ear, and actually sounds less idiomatic.
    This sounds correct and non-subjunctive, although I would say "I used to walk every day."
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Maybe what you say is true in AE. It doesn't hold in BE. I could say In those days I would have walked every day, but now, of course...Oh dear! and it would mean that I used to walk every day. There would be nothing counterfactual about it at all.

    It could, of course, be concerned with an unreal past too, if there was a hint of an if-clause about. Had I been there would be enough.


     
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    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    "Some decades ago, it WOULDN'T HAVE BEEN unusual to meet people who had never heard of acupuncture.
    I agree with Cagey: the easiest way to think of this is that there is an implied unrealised condition:

    If we had lived some decades ago...
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    I believe would have walked can be "imperfect" in a sense:

    In those days, I used to have no need for a car, and I would cook my own supper. In fact, I would have walked to the store and bought groceries so everything would be fresh. Maybe that is why I was healthier then.

    But would have walked is then equivalent to "used to have walked"/"had walked", not "used to walk"/"walked". In other words, it would be the "imperfect" in perfect aspect, referring to something that habitually came before something else.

    I suppose then that the original sample sentence is ambiguous, since wouldn't has two possible interpretations.

    Wouldn't have been unusual is not present perfect though. It is either conditional perfect or "imperfect" perfect. The same form can also be future perfect in the past, but not in the context given.
     
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