Would have been

I recently joined the Facebook group “Honor Harvey Milk with a U.S. postage stamp”. The group’s description begins

May 22, 2010 would have been Harvey’s 80th birthday.

Not your usual use of would have been. Many people would have gone for

May 22, 2010 will be Harvey’s 80th birthday.

But some are uncomfortable identifying a numbered birthday for someone who has died. The 80th birthday is not really in the future.

Would can express conditional semantics. In

Anna Nicole Would Have Been 41 Today. Posted at 3:33PM on Nov 28th 2008 … (link)

we understand this in light of “if she had lived” or “if she hadn’t died”, and that’s fine when the birthday is on the day of writing or speaking. You can project the condition into the future, as in

If Harvey had lived, May 22, 2010 would be his 80th birthday.

If the condition is implicit rather than explicit, simple would is less successful:

May 22, 2010 would be Harvey’s 80th birthday.

This is close to the version with will, but with the prediction softened. Using would plus the perfect, however, doesn’t quite fly, even if the condition is made explicit:

If Harvey had lived, May 22, 2010 would have been his 80th birthday.

The problem is packaging futurity and conditionality together.

2 Responses to “Would have been”

  1. Ian Preston Says:

    The version which you say “doesn’t quite fly” actually sounds better to me than your preferred version.

    What about “May 22, 2010 should have been Harvey’s 80th birthday”?
    Simple should definitely doesn’t seem to me to work here. “May 22, 2010 should be Harvey’s 80th birthday” seems to me to suggest that it could still be so. The use of the perfect seems to me to capture somehow the regrettable inevitability now of it’s never being so. I feel something like that with would as well and that it has to do with the event that prevented May 22 being his birthday being in the past and with the occurrence of the birthday being in an alternative history from which we diverged 30 years ago. If you make that event the explicit condition of your sentences then would have been sounds even more strongly better to me than would be. For example, “If Harvey hadn’t been killed, May 22, 2010 would have been Harvey’s 80th birthday” sounds right while “If Harvey hadn’t been killed, May 22, 2010 would be Harvey’s 80th birthday” doesn’t.

  2. Ellen K. Says:

    I think as a reader I’m confortable with letting the date express the futurity. I’m also comfortable with “is” for a person alive. I don’t think this is using the present tense for the future (which we only do for the near future), but rather seeing it as, that date already is his birthday.

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