A man asked a question to his friend, “Why was it the best time for Bilal to be in his home?”

His friend replied, “It would be the best time for Bilal to be in his home because his uncle visited him at that time.”

In what sense is the modal verb would being used above?

Can we replace the would used there with this instead:

It might have been the best time. . . ..

What job does would do in the quoted dialogue above?

1 Answer 1

  1. The phrase in his home is not the usual idiom: we normally say at home. This doesn't necessarily mean that the phrase is wrong or unidiomatic; it’s possible to imagine circumstances in which in his home would be exactly the right way to put it; but it raises the suspicion that the speakers were not native speakers.

  2. The answer is not unambiguously responsive to the question: ordinarily an answer is expressed with the same tense and mood as the question. Here, however, the question is expressed using the simple past, but the answer uses a construction with would; and although would is indeed the simple past form of will, its use implies one of these meanings:

    • a ‘future-in-the-past’—that is, something which happened after his uncle visited; but that is very far-fetched, and really requires elaboration: “It would turn out to be the best time because it just so happened that his uncle visited him at that time” ...
    • a ‘hypothetical’—something which would be true if something else were true; but there’s no if clause here ...
    • an offhand and somewhat dismissive assertion, more or less equivalent to has to or must—“Oh, it has to be because his uncle visited him at that time.”

    So there are two possible misuses, and one possible correct use. You may be charitable and assume that the speaker was using would correctly. Me, given point 1, I doubt it: I just don't think a native speaker would construct so formal a sentence as that with would in that sense.

I think you are probably right in your guess that what the speaker meant was might have been; but that's not something which the construction with would expresses.

  • So 'might have been' doesn't mean the same thing? The sentence is not by a native speaker, and I know that he meant 'might have been'. I just want to confirm whether 'would' is interchangeable with 'might have been', in the sense that is expressed by 'might have been'? Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 20:25
  • @SamamaFahim Would is not interchangeable with might have been. Nohow, no way. :) Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 20:41
  • @SamamaFahim However, it would be possible to substitute could be (or could have been, either will work) for might have been in this context. Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 21:05
  • But I learnt from the British Council that 'might be, may be, and could be' or these modal verbs without 'be' are used to say how much sure we're about something in the present about a future event. Example: Don’t put it up there. It could fall off and hit someone. Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 23:06
  • 1
    @ZhanlongZheng: It's more complicated than that. We don't use positive can for present possibility or inference, but could: "It could be that..." = "It is possible that" OR "I infer that...". We use can for present possibility/inference only in the negative: "It cannot be that...". Backshifted cannot becomes could not; but possible/inferential could does not change form when it is backshifted: "He said that it could be that..." = "He said that it was possible that ...". Present could is backshifted to could have been only when it represents an irrealis. Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 10:14

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