I was reading this article in The Guardian, and I came across an odd-sounding sentence:

Sometimes Toby would have come back, and there would be loud music in the drawing room;

My impression was, the author portrays a habitual occurrence in the past. Some kind of a repeat activity.

If that's a correct interpretation, shouldn't the sentence instead say:

"Sometimes Toby WOULD come back..."

I'm used to thinking of a "WOULD HAVE COME" construction as a hypothetical event that never actually took place.

Please correct me if I am wrong.

  • Can you link to the source?
    – Laurel
    Feb 28, 2018 at 16:00
  • Sorry, my bad! Here is the link theguardian.com/books/2004/sep/22/bookerprize2004.bookerprize1
    – Spotter
    Feb 28, 2018 at 16:21
  • 1
    Just as a Brit speaker, I agree with you. 'Would have come' means they wanted to, but could not. Unless I were making, say, a statement to the Police and said, 'Every day she would have walked the dog', expressing the probability but not the certainty of a witnessed event.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 28, 2018 at 16:37
  • related - english.stackexchange.com/questions/64485/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Feb 28, 2018 at 23:37
  • I don't think would here is habitual. It is certainly embedded in a habitual sentence, but that is just happenstance. The sentence can be rewritten as an explicitly one-off event and would still works fine (for me). But for the first time Toby would have come, and there would be loud music in the drawing room.
    – Phil Sweet
    Mar 1, 2018 at 16:20

5 Answers 5


In present time, Toby could say, perhaps to someone on the telephone,

"I've just come back and there is loud music in the drawing room."

Present perfect for an event completed in the very recent past and present tense because the loud music is now.

The author wishes to indicate repeated instances in the past and to preserve the temporal sequence of arrival and the loud music. Though the two events are virtually simultaneous, the space between arrival and the perception allows the reader to slip inside the narrative rather than merely hear a narration of events:

Sometimes he would come home and there would be loud music in the drawing room.

Instead, the author maintains the sequence and adds would to each verb:

Sometimes he would have come home and there would be loud music in the drawing room.

The effect is less temporal than spatial: Toby has arrived in some part of the house and over there somewhere there's loud music.


It is indeed an habitual occurrence in the past. But it seems to be intended as a pluperfect, not a simple past. Toby's coming back had already occurred by the time the loud music was playing.

Toby had come back, and there was loud music in the drawing room. (normal past perfect + simple past)

Sometimes Toby would have come back, and there would be loud music in the drawing room. (habitual past perfect + habitual simple past)

It is true that would have come can also be used not as an habitual past perfect, but as a conditional/counter-factual past perfect subjunctive. The same applies to would come, which could be habitual simple past or conditional simple past subjunctive:

She would come back if you called her. But you're not calling her. (simple past conditional subjunctive, indicating counter-factual present situation)

She would have come back if you had called her. But you didn't call her. (past perfect conditional subjunctive, indicating counter-factual past situation)

She would confess her sins every Sunday. (simple habitual past)

On those lovely summer Sundays, she would have confessed her sins, and we would be going through the rites of absolution together. (habitual past perfect)

  • 1
    Just as a Brit speaker it does not sound right to me to say 'he/she would have' if a definite act occurred in the past. 'Every day she would have walked the dog' means - to myself - every she wanted to but was prevented from doing so.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 28, 2018 at 16:36
  • @NigelJ: Each person may have his own expectations of the language. It's not a definite act, but something that happened every x. I've slightly reordered the sentence to make that extra clear. For the record, the source is British. Feb 28, 2018 at 17:47
  • Yes, indeed. The Grauniad, no less.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 28, 2018 at 17:49
  • @NigelJ: It's actually an extract from The Line of Beauty. (The television series is quite enjoyable as well.) Feb 28, 2018 at 17:51

@NigelJ is right as regards the last example @Cerberus gives. In the full context of the extract however, I can see the author's logic. The whole passage is about an habitual situation in the past. That situation begins the moment Toby gets home. "He has come back. There is loud music. He goes into the garden etc. "

Put all of that into the habitual past: "He would have come back. There would be loud music. He would go into the garden."


For me, I couldn’t get the sense of this until I tried playing with how the words are spoken—instead of “he [would have] come back” it must be “he would [have come] back,” where the brackets indicate words linked by... timing? stress, maybe? I can hear the difference, and it makes all the difference here in understanding it. In short: out loud, I would have no trouble understanding (but would find it sounding kind of, “quaint” perhaps?), but in writing my mind simply did not parse the sentence as intended.

Anyway, the key to understanding here is to not think of this as a case of would have (which yes, indicates a hypothetical action that did not take place for some reason), but rather have come, as in, being in the state of having arrived recently, but distinctly in the past. Then we can rewrite the sentence and it becomes clear, to me anyway:

Sometimes Toby would [be in the state of having recently arrived], and there would be loud music in the drawing room;


This use of would is apparently regional. It is totally natural to me, so it is a bit hard to explain, but basically, this is a subjunctive construction that is used to signal that the outcome depends on somebody else's choice, decision, or action. In other words, the speaker has played his role enabling a situation, now the result depends on the other's actions.

Sometimes Toby would have come back, and there would be loud music in the drawing room;

So in the quote, the speaker is present and able to hear the music, and if Toby had come back, then he would in fact hear loud music. If Toby hadn't come back, presumably the music would not be on, or not be as loud. Would here establishes an unambigous causal relation between Toby and loud music.

Another way of doing the same thing is

Sometimes, should Toby have come back, there would be loud music in the drawing room;

I've looked for information on this usage before but haven't found anything. There are several other questions here in ELU about similar usages. None attracted much attention or got a researched answer.

Looking at the two sentences above, they aren't quite identical. The second is about the fact that Toby came home. The first is about him choosing to come home.

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