I am confused with the sentence below.
Any help would be appreciated.

"We should remember how common the disease would have been 50 years ago. But things are different now."

In this sentence, what does "would have been" exactly mean? I can think of two possible interpretations...
1. under a condition (not written here), "it" would have been common 50 years ago, BUT actually WASN'T.
2. "it" used to be common 50 years ago.

Which is correct? Or both incorrect?
If one of them is correct, how do you tell one from the other?

1 2

In the sentence We should remember how common the disease would have been 50 years ago, the idea of would + have , imagine the situation:

Now we have medication to treat a specific disease but, imagine this disease had appeared 50 years ago, in a time when there was no medication, no treatment for it, so how the disease would have been very common, but now things are different so it's not possible for it to be common.

When we use would + a perfect form (have + past participle) we talk about hypothesis.

Would when used in a common sentence can have the idea of used to, for ex: When I was a kid I would play with my friends every day after school. Or, when I was a kid I used to play wih my friends.....

Now imagine: If I had John's tel number I would have invited him for my party. You see? in this cas Im taking about a hypothesis, I dont have his numebr but if I had I would've invited him.
Anonymous"We should remember how common the disease would have been 50 years ago. But things are different now."
This is similar to We should remember how common the disease used to be 50 years ago. ...

But the use of would have acknowledges that we readers weren't necessarily there to experience it for ourselves, and so not all readers are able to remember something 50 years ago because they weren't alive then. Implicit in this sentence is a third conditional:

If we had lived at that time, we would have seen that the disease was quite common then.

The counterfactual aspect of the sentence is that we weren't there; therefore, we must imagine the situation as if we had been there. The counterfactual idea is not that the disease was not common then!

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"We should remember how common the disease would have been 50 years ago. But things are different now."

Thanks Rafaelinrio and CalifJim.

So, you two have different opinions on the sentence above. Mybe what I presented did not have enough context...
The sentence appears in an article that talks about the positive aspects of modern technologies.
Thus, it should mean "The disease used to be common 50 years ago but not anymore." as CalifJim mentioned.

But when I first read the sentece, I misunderstood like "If we hadn't had (advanced) technologies 50 years ago, the disease would have been common." and it did not make sense in the article because it was discussing how advanced our current technologies are compared with the one 50 years ago. So, I came to believe this interpretation is not right or at least is not what the author meant.

So how can you native speakers decide on which interpretatioin to go with? (It seems both Rafaelinrio and CalifJim are native English speakers.)
Is it solely based on the context?

I also thought about different grammatical interpretations other than the third conditional ones:
1. "would" (indicating "uncertainty") + had been
2. "would" (meaning "used to") + had been
3. native speakers just don't think about the grammar. And "would have been" just gives some kind of image... such as distance (time-wise), indirectness, or whatever...

This "would have" thing have been bugging me for quite a while now.
Please help me!

And Rafaelinrio and CalifJim, thanks again!


I am really confused with the use of word "common" . This word has two meanings. One is "ordinary" and another is "frequent". Your sentence could fit both of these meanings. So, I think you should make the context clear by giving the whole paragraph.


I think the most confusing part of the sentence is the use of the word "common". What does the word "common" mean here. "common" means "ordinary " and "frequent" both. So which meaning does it suggest? It looks like both of the meaning could fit in your sentence. So, to avoid this confusion, would you please provide enough context where this sentence is used.

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ysharmawould you please provide ... ?
Please note the dates of posts. You are asking a question of someone who posted this sentence almost two years ago. I don't think you should assume that they are still regularly visiting the forum. Try not to be disappointed if they don't respond. Emotion: sad

Hi Cj,

thanks for your reply. I have recently become a member. So, I had the same problem and was disappointed with that "would+have+past participle" structure. Then I searched Google and found EnglishForward and your answers helped me a lot.

I am still not sure about the meaning of this structure.

If I had visited him, I would have given him a gift.

the meaning of this sentence is "in reality, I didn't visit him, so there is no question of giving him a gift."

But, if somebody only says the last part in isolation. what would be the meaning?

"I would have given him a gift."

It doesn't mean that I have not given him a gift. It rather means that the speaker had a desire to give a gift.

This is what I understand by this structure. There is always the problem when "would+have+past participle" is used in isolation. If it comes with "if-part" , then it becomes easy to figure out the meaning.

ysharma if somebody only says the last part in isolation, what would be the meaning be?
would have should be considered a dependent tense. It depends on the context of the situation and on what was said just before the would have clause was uttered. A native speaker is not likely to say "I would have given him a gift" in isolation because it has no meaning by itself. Some hypothetical situation has to be currently under discussion before such a sentence has a sensible meaning. In other words, the if clause is implicit in the situation itself.

For example, in a discussion between you and your friends, you may find out that one of your friends has insulted someone with some unkind words, and you are all imagining what you would have done in that case to apologize. Someone in your group may say, "I would have given him a gift". So the implicit hypothetical situation is "What would I have done if I had been the one who had insulted someone?" The person who actually did the insulting can take this remark as a suggestion of what he might do to make amends in the real case of insult that he was involved in.

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