Listening to the BBC one of the journalists made the following utterance when discussing a historic figure, "The Khan".

A: For merchants the crucial issue was protection when traveling.
B: I think they wouldn't have been alone when traveling.

Shouldn't this simply be "would be" or "weren't"?


In short: no, this usage of would have been is correct, and its meaning is subtly different from would be and were here. It is probably useful to look at this sentence one step at a time, to consider each transformation of the verb separately.

They are not alone when travelling.

A simple statement about a present fact. (The default attitude of a speaker towards a proposition is "this is true", so fairly strong certainty.)

They were not alone when travelling.

The verb is transferred to the past: a simple statement of fact about the past.

They will not have been alone when travelling.

In this transformation, have been is equivalent to were as above; will is added to express "I expect that this will turn out to be true". It calls some attention to the (confident) attitude of the speaker towards this "fact of the past"; one could say that the speaker shows that he is aware that he is giving an estimation, not a completely indisputable fact. But instead of may, he uses will to express that he is quite confident about it.

I do not think this is habitual will/would, because to describe a repeated situation in the past you would simply say they would be alone when travelling. You could do that, and the meaning of the sentence would not change very much, because the speaker's attitude is not that important to the meaning of the whole sentence; but it would still be slightly different.

The condition when travelling makes it a habitual/repeated situation anyway: they were not alone when travelling would express that they were not alone "every time they travelled". So the habitual nature is probably not contained in will/would.

They would not have been alone when travelling.

Here will changes into past subjunctive would. This could be considered a conditional would, as in "if I should be right, they would not have been alone", or some other condition. As an alternative, you could simply say that the past subjunctive can be used with modal verbs to add more uncertainty in general.

I do not think there is a clear boundary between the two. The more general uncertainty as perceived in would where no clear condition is present (explicitly or otherwise) probably originates in that very conditional construction: a condition adds some degree of uncertainty to any proposition, as it will only be true under certain conditions. You could call would "epistemic" when no condition can be easily conceived of, but it is really immaterial.


This answer is essentially a replay of a chat conversation (starts here) about this very question.

Firstly, the would does not express conditionality, it expresses doubt. It is an example of epistemic modality. The speaker (B) cannot say that the merchants did not travel alone, he is expressing a hypothesis. The sentence is also tagged with this modality in a non-grammatical way, by starting with I think. So, the next obvious question is: why two lots of epistemic modality? Well, that's just one way English speakers hedge, for example:

It's maybe possible
I maybe could go
It's possible you might not be the best person for the job

So, why then, is have there? Why not just

I think they wouldn't be alone when travelling.

In this context, it is entirely fine to use this construction. That is because we already know the discussion is about the past, so it's fine to assume that the hypothesis is talking about a past event. However, would can be used to when talking about the future, e.g.

If I were you, I wouldn't go up there

Also, would is being used to emphasise doubt, so imagine if B were less doubtful, and didn't use have:

I think they won't be alone when travelling.

Suddenly B is talking about the future! So, have is added in as an additional marker to make sure we know that B is talking about the past.

In conclusion B is saying

They won't have been alone when travelling.

But with double hedged words.


Would, and its negative, can be used to describe habitual past actions. In your example, wouldn’t have been alone indicates that those concerned travelled in company on most, if not all, occasions.

  • But my example doesn't use would but rather would have which is the conditional past and doesnt make sense here. – Noah May 24 '12 at 9:12
  • @Noah it does make sense. – Matt E. Эллен May 24 '12 at 9:14
  • 2
    @Noah: The use of 'would' is not confined to conditional clauses and I can assure you that the sentence makes sense. I should have added, however, that it has two possible readings. On top of, or possibly in place of, the habitual meaning, ‘would(n’t)’ can suggest that what is being said is speculative. English modal verbs present formidable difficulties to foreign learners (and I assume you are one), and you really need a qualified English teacher to explain all their subtleties personally. This is not really the place for such tuition. – Barrie England May 24 '12 at 9:22
  • Thanks!. So if I say: He would have died it means that he might or might not have died? – Noah May 24 '12 at 13:40
  • @Noah: It means that his death was a certainty in the absence of some interventing event. You'd expect to find it in a sentence such as 'He would have died if the ambulance hadn't arrived in time.' – Barrie England May 24 '12 at 13:49

Your question is essentially about were vs. would have been. What B said was roughly equivalent to:

I don't think they would have been alone while traveling, or
I don't think they would have traveled alone.

It sounds like B is merely presuming that most travelers didn't travel alone. B could have said:

I don't think they were alone while traveling, or
I don't think they traveled alone.

with very little difference in meaning, although the former sounds a bit more like it includes an embedded hypothesis than the latter.

The difference in tense is described on this page as the Simple Past, and the Conditional II Simple.

  • But the would have part implies that the action didn't take place? – Noah May 24 '12 at 9:17
  • @Noah: On the contrary, it implies the action probably did take place. That's why the difference in meaning is almost inconsequential in this case, particularly with the word think at the start of the quote. – J.R. May 24 '12 at 9:24
  • The travelling took place, but the use of 'wouldn't have been' as opposed to 'weren't' conceivably introduces an element of specualation as to whether they were alone or not. This is more apparent in a sentence like 'Surely they wouldn't have been alone when travelling?' – Barrie England May 24 '12 at 9:43
  • I see. The action did take place because the "would have" part is negative, right? Is it still a conditional or some other form of "would have"? – Noah May 24 '12 at 13:35
  • @Noah: No, it isn't conditional. The action probably did take place, but that particular construction introduces an element of doubt. Do you have access to an English teacher, Noah? You really need professional instruction in these aspects of the language. There's much more to be said about them than is possible here. – Barrie England May 24 '12 at 14:12

'Wouldn't' is a contraction for would not, so the sentence 'I think they would not have been alone when traveling' is correct.

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