That Didn’t Sound Right…

By , February 26, 2012

Earlier this month, I found myself jarred while listening to an NPR “Talk of the Nation” segment honoring the legacy of poet Langston Hughes.  Host Neal Conan said, “Langston Hughes would have been 110 yesterday; he died in 1967.” (transcript).

That didn’t sound right, but it took me a few minutes to figure out why: that phrase, “[a deceased person] would have been [an age],” implies both the untimeliness of the death, and the plausibility of survival to the current day. Neither element seemed satisfied in this particular situation.

Instead, Mr. Conan should have said, “Langston Hughes was born 110 years ago yesterday.”

According to Wikipedia, Mr. Hughes died at the age of 65 as a result of complications from abdominal surgery related to prostate cancer.  I’ll concede that this was “untimely,” and I must also concede that there are some people alive today who were born more than 110 years ago.

But the usage still feels wrong.  I suppose when I hear the phrase, “[deceased person] would have been [age],” I want a “more untimely” death and a “more plausible” survival.  For example, I think it’s reasonable to state on January 15, 2012 that “The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been 83.”  At the opposite extreme, it would be absurd to say, “William Shakespeare would have been 448” this year.


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