I've recently noticed that a few people I know, all native American English speakers in their 50s-70s and originally from the Midwest, use "would have" and related forms when talking about factual events that happened relatively long ago.

Here's a made-up example of what I mean:

Upon seeing George Washington's house, one might say "This is where Washington would have lived." instead of "This is where Washington lived."

Another example: "I would've been born in that hospital." as equivalent to "I was born in that hospital."

This sentence, however, isn't an example: "I would have had lunch with her every day last week." It doesn't work because it's insufficiently far in the past.

As @Cascabel notes, it's better to have real examples than made-up ones. So, I hopped on the phone and asked one of the "would have" users a history question (he's a baseball historian) without mentioning my goal. Sure enough, here are a few non-made-up examples:

  • "He would've been there from 1941-1963, excluding a brief period he took off for the war."

  • "My father would've taken me to see him for my tenth and eleventh birthdays."

  • "It wouldn't have been uncommon for baseball players to have had second jobs back then - it certainly wasn't like today."

Is this a regionalism? A generationally-related usage? Or is it some other phenomenon I don't know the name of? I've only seen a handful of people do this, so, for all I know, they're the only ones.

Is there a name for this sort of usage? I'm not quite sure what to call it, which has made searching for it somewhat difficult, and it's very possible that I've missed an already existing answer.

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    Possibly you are hearing usages of "would" used like "used to" to describe past habitual actions. It would be a good idea to listen carefully the next time you hear this and note down an actual example, rather than making up free examples that may not pattern the usage. Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 16:24
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    Take, for example, As a good Jew, Jesus would have grown up within a theological model. There's no suggestion that Jesus might not have been a good Jew, or that anything "habitual" is being referenced. This isn't the same usage as, say, I would have thought Jesus grew up within a theological model, where the difference between I think and I would have thought is that the latter is slightly more "circumspect, hesitant, self-effacing, deferential" (almost a "hedge"). Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 16:33
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    @Cascabel +10. But sadly impossible to award. Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 20:30
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    I have heard this in use and I have always explained it to myself like this. The full sentence would be something like: If you had visited here in the 1780’s this is where George Washington would have lived.
    – Jim
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 22:16
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    It is common to use this when you aren't stating a direct fact so much as reasoning something out. It seems to be a subjunctive use expressing an "opinion" in the sense you didn't see it for yourself - the info being second hand, deduced, or the specifics are fuzzy. "That would have been about ..." and "that would have been around ..." are common idiomatic phrases along the same lines.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 2:28

3 Answers 3


No opinion about George Washington. But for the baseball historian, it's simple. He is speculating, trying to reconstruct a timeline and arrangement of facts in his timeline.

If he doesn't have specific documentation to back up certain facts and dates, then he has to do some thinking to figure out what happened when, and he expresses that with "would have."

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    I don't think he's speculating - at least, not entirely. He had, at the time of answering, the year information in front of him, and I'm not sure the Washington example is separable. I'll see about getting more examples of actual usage to test whether or not that Washington example is accurate. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 11:28
  • @Tutleman - If he has made himself a timeline or a chart to refer back to during the conversation/interview, then he can say "was." Otherwise, if he's in any doubt at all, he can say "would have been." I'm just describing the expression as I've heard it used and as I have used it. My guess is that today's 30YOs will speak that way in 20 years too. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 22:46
  • Totally fair. This explanation does make sense with a lot of aspects of what I've heard, though "Washington-style" usages are still up in the air, and barring an explanation that can handle those, too, I'll have no qualms accepting this answer. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 23:06
  • @Tutleman - Yeah, the Washington thing has me stumped. Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 23:07
  • We can't tell from the given contexts of the sentences that the speaker is "speculating." And that is not the only scenario that licenses the use of would have. Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 12:53

We use "would have" when we speculate about something that probably happened, in the past, and will explain something else.

Example: somebody doesn't arrive who should have by now. We say: "He would have run into a problem that delayed him".


Being in the age group and having lived originally in Midwest it seems to me that "would have" used in the "long ago" past comes into use mostly when there is a negative or lack of action mentioned as the premise of that past existing situation.


"Her mother didn't bring along a coat, or she would have been wearing it, since Minneapolis was so cold that year in early October."

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