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In the Northern Irish dialect, a speaker can say

You see, I would have been very shy, and his encouragement really helped me.

Here, the "would have been" is used to indicate that the speaker is recalling a general state of being from the past, rather than any sort of conditional. It's used as a rhetorical device to encourage the listener to imagine a situational context. An alternative rendering of the same might be "Back then, I tended to be a very shy person, and his encouragement really helped me."

Is the use of "would have" a known language device? Does it have a formal term?

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  • This seems to be a common feature, and it's not really a conditional unless you assume a hidden "if clause" - If I remember correctly... but that is not needed. The "would" is used to express a continuing state in the past. -- Consider "I would have been 15 when I had my first real girlfriend."
    – Greybeard
    Nov 5, 2022 at 18:12
  • I think you're mistakenly assigning a genuine element of "uncertainty" to the usage in your examples. A more accurate alternative rendering would be Back then, I was a very shy person (the fact that speaker said would have been doesn't particularly imply would probably have been or might have been). Nov 5, 2022 at 18:28
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    Whatever - I'd say such use of would have been instead of was is [often, deferential] circumlocution. Nov 5, 2022 at 18:31
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    Isn't this just the subjunctive mood? Used to express hypotheticals, etc.
    – jaredad7
    Nov 5, 2022 at 18:31
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    It's not a conditional at all. It's just one more idiomatic use of the modal auxiliary would. All modals participate in many idioms and constructions. They're very busy verbs. Nov 5, 2022 at 19:37

2 Answers 2

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In a comment Greybeard answered:

This seems to be a common feature, and it's not really a conditional unless you assume a hidden "if clause" - If I remember correctly... but that is not needed. The "would" is used to express a continuing state in the past. -- Consider "I would have been 15 when I had my first real girlfriend."

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  • Yes the "I would have been 15" implies thinking back to recall something as a feature of the statement. I was just asking if there's a name.for this idiom. Quite probably the answer is "no" Nov 6, 2022 at 20:23
  • @PoundHash THEY ARE NOT MY ANSWERS. They're from the Community, who didn't put them where they were supposed to go. Should I just delete all comments and answers? Is that your request? I can delete them all then lock it forever from comments. Then people will have to answer. But they won't. And no answer will ever be given.
    – tchrist
    Nov 11, 2022 at 23:34
  • @PoundHash Then I'll disassociate my name with these posts and you'll never know who did it. The problem is that NOBODY POSTS ANSWERS. They put their answers in comments, and go away. Please go nag the people causing this problem by answering in comments. You know who they are. And also go nag the people who posts neither.
    – tchrist
    Nov 12, 2022 at 0:29
  • @PoundHash That's your opinion, and you're welcome to it because I do not share it. I fully intend to continue capturing the slackers' comments as answers, and it is senseless to limit that to only one slacker per question. Otherwise you make me judge which one I like best, and that's wrong. An answer is an answer.
    – tchrist
    Nov 12, 2022 at 0:42
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In a comment FumbleFingers answered:

I think you're mistakenly assigning a genuine element of "uncertainty" to the usage in your examples. A more accurate alternative rendering would be Back then, I was a very shy person (the fact that speaker said would have been doesn't particularly imply would probably have been or might have been).

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  • Consider my knuckles rapped! I wanted to take it a bit further and say something about using could rather than would to reflect genuine uncertainty on the part of the speaker, but Back then I could have been very shy sounds a bit weird (but Back then I could be a bit shy works fine). On the other hand, both versions of Back then people could / would have thought I was very shy work fine, and the choice of auxiliary does largely reflect might have / did. Nov 5, 2022 at 18:43
  • @FumbleFingers If you will be so kind as to write up a proper answer, I’d be glad to delete this post. Related to this are the narrative or habitual uses of would which are often forgotten by beginners, if not entirely unlearnt: When I was a lad, we would have porridge each morning before dawn.
    – tchrist
    Nov 5, 2022 at 18:48
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    The truth is I'm not entirely sure of my ground on this one. When I started writing my first comment under the question, I was fully intending to accompany it with a "migrate to ELL" closevote. But I started to doubt my position as I wrote the comment, so I decided to lie doggo and see what others had to say. Maybe sometimes "would" reflects the speaker's uncertainty regarding the truth of assertions, where other times it reflects speaker's wish to be "deferential / self-effacing / non-assertive". Nov 5, 2022 at 18:54
  • I am from Northern Ireland and I'm pretty sure there's a softening of the certainty implied. Nov 6, 2022 at 20:21

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